Ancient India's Contributions

to Mathematics 

Mathematics represents a high level of abstraction attained by the human mind. In India, mathematics has its roots in Vedic literature which is nearly 4000 years old. Between 1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D. various treatises on mathematics were authored by Indian mathematicians in which were set forth for the first time, the concept of zero, the techniques of algebra and algorithm, square root and cube root. 
This method of graduated calculation was documented in the Pancha-Siddhantika (Five Principles) in the 5th Century, but the technique is said to date from Vedic times circa 2000 B.C.

As in the applied sciences like production technology, architecture and shipbuilding, Indians in ancient times also made advances in abstract sciences like Mathematics and Astronomy. It has now been generally accepted that the technique of algebra and the concept of zero originated in India. 

But it would be surprising for us to know that even the rudiments of Geometry, called Rekha-Ganita in ancient India, were formulated and applied in the drafting of Mandalas for architectural purposes. They were also displayed in the geometric patterns used in many temple motifs.

Many motifs in Hindu temples and Palaces display a mix of floral and Geometric patterns.

Even the technique of calculation, called algorithm, which is today widely used in designing soft ware programs (instructions) for computers was also derived from Indian mathematics. In this chapter we shall examine the advances made by Indian mathematicians in ancient times. 


In India around the 5th century A.D. a system of mathematics that made astronomical calculations easy was developed. In those times its application was limited to astronomy as its pioneers were Astronomers. Astronomical calculations are complex and involve many variables that go into the derivation of unknown quantities. Algebra is a short-hand method of calculation and by this feature it scores over conventional arithmetic. 

In ancient India conventional mathematics termed Ganitam was known before the development of algebra. This is borne out by the name - Bijaganitam, which was given to the algebraic form of computation. Bijaganitam means 'the other mathematics' (Bija means 'another' or 'second' and Ganitam means mathematics). The fact that this name was chosen for this system of computation implies that it was recognized as a parallel system of computation, different from the conventional one which was used since the past and was till then the only one. Some have interpreted the term Bija to mean seed, symbolizing origin or beginning. And the inference that Bijaganitam was the original form of computation is derived. Credence is lent to this view by the existence of mathematics in the Vedic literature which was also shorthand method of computation. But whatever the origin of algebra, it is certain that this technique of computation Originated in India and was current around 1500 years back. Aryabhatta an Indian mathematician who lived in the 5th century A.D. has referred to Bijaganitam in his treatise on Mathematics, Aryabhattiya. An Indian mathematician - astronomer, Bhaskaracharya has also authored a treatise on this subject. the treatise which is dated around the 12th century A.D. is entitled 'Siddhanta-Shiromani' of which one section is entitled Bijaganitam. 

Thus the technique of algebraic computation was known and was developed in India in earlier times. From the 13th century onwards, India was subject to invasions from the Arabs and other Islamized communities like the Turks and Afghans. Along with these invader: came chroniclers and critics like Al-beruni who studied Indian society and polity. 

The Indian system of mathematics could no have escaped their attention. It was also the age of the Islamic Renaissance and the Arabs generally improved upon the arts and sciences that they imbibed from the land they overran during their great Jehad. The system of mathematics they observed in India was adapted by them and given the name 'Al-Jabr' meaning 'the reunion of broken parts'. 'Al' means 'The' & 'Jabr' mean 'reunion'. This name given by the Arabs indicates that they took it from an external source and amalgamated it with their concepts about mathematics. 

Between the 10th to 13th centuries, the Christian kingdoms of Europe made numerous attempts to reconquer the birthplace of Jesus Christ from its Mohammedan-Arab rulers. These attempts called the Crusades failed in their military objective, but the contacts they created between oriental and occidental nations resulted in a massive exchange of ideas. The technique of algebra could have passed on to the west at this time. 

During the Renaissance in Europe, followed by the industrial revolution, the knowledge received from the east was further developed. Algebra as we know it today has lost any characteristics that betray it eastern origin save the fact that the tern 'algebra' is a corruption of the term 'Al jabr' which the Arabs gave to Bijaganitam Incidentally the term Bijaganit is still use in India to refer to this subject. 

In the year 1816, an Englishman by the name James Taylor translated Bhaskara's Leelavati into English. A second English translation appeared in the following year (1817) by the English astronomer Henry Thomas Colebruke. Thus the works of this Indian mathematician astronomer were made known to the western world nearly 700 years after he had penned them, although his ideas had already reached the west through the Arabs many centuries earlier. 

In the words of the Australian Indiologist A.L. Basham (A.L. Basham; The Wonder That was India.) "... the world owes most to India in the realm of mathematics, which was developed in the Gupta period to a stage more advanced than that reached by any other nation of antiquity. The success of Indian mathematics was mainly due to the fact that Indians had a clear conception of the abstract number as distinct from the numerical quantity of objects or spatial extension." 

Thus Indians could take their mathematical concepts to an abstract plane and with the aid of a simple numerical notation devise a rudimentary algebra as against the Greeks or the ancient Egyptians who due to their concern with the immediate measurement of physical objects remained confined to Mensuration and Geometry. 


But even in the area of Geometry, Indian mathematicians had their contribution. There was an area of mathematical applications called Rekha Ganita (Line Computation). The Sulva Sutras, which literally mean 'Rule of the Chord' give geometrical methods of constructing altars and temples. The temples layouts were called Mandalas. Some of important works in this field are by Apastamba, Baudhayana, Hiranyakesin, Manava, Varaha and Vadhula. 

The Buddhist Pagodas borrowed their plan of construction from the geometric grid of the Mandala used for constructing temples in India
(A majestic Pagoda at Bangkok)

The Arab scholar Mohammed Ibn Jubair al Battani studied Indian use of ratios from Retha Ganita and introduced them among the Arab scholars like Al Khwarazmi, Washiya and Abe Mashar who incorporated the newly acquired knowledge of algebra and other branches of Indian mathematics into the Arab ideas about the subject. 

The chief exponent of this Indo-Arab amalgam in mathematics was Al Khwarazmi who evolved a technique of calculation from Indian sources. This technique which was named by westerners after Al Khwarazmi as "Algorismi" gave us the modern term Algorithm, which is used in computer software. 

Algorithm which is a process of calculation based on decimal notation numbers. This method was deduced by Khwarazmi from the Indian techniques geometric computation which he had tried. Al Khwarazmi's work was translated into Latin under the title "De Numero Indico" which means 'of Indian Numerals' thus betraying its Indian origin. This translation which belong to the 12th century CE credited to one Adelard who lived in a town called Bath in Britain. 

Thus Al Khwarazmi and Adelard could looked upon as pioneers who transmit Indian numerals to the west. Incidents according to the Oxford Dictionary, word algorithm which we use in the English language is a corruption of the name Khwarazmi which literally means '(a person) from Khawarizm', which was the name of the town where Al Khwarazmi lived. To day unfortunately', the original Indian texts that Al Khwarazmi studied are lost to us, only the translations are avail able .

The Arabs borrowed so much from India the field of mathematics that even the subject of mathematics in Arabic came to known as Hindsa which means 'from India and a mathematician or engineer in Arabic is called Muhandis which means 'an expert in Mathematics'. The word Muhandis possibly derived from the Arabic term mathematics viz. Hindsa.

The Concept of Zero 

The concept of zero also originated in ancient India. This concept may seem to be a very ordinary one and a claim to its discovery may be viewed as strange. But if one gives a hard thought to this concept it would be seen that zero is not just a numeral. Apart from being a numeral, it is also a concept, and a fundamental one at that. It is fundamental because, terms to identify visible or perceptible objects do not require much ingenuity. 

But a concept and symbol that connotes nullity represents a qualitative advancement of the human capacity of abstraction. In absence of a concept of zero there could have been only positive numerals in computation, the inclusion of zero in mathematics opened up a new dimension of negative numerals and gave a cut off point and a standard in the measurability of qualities whose extremes are as yet unknown to human beings, such as temperature. 

In ancient India this numeral was used in computation, it was indicated by a dot and was termed Pujyam. Even today we use this term for zero along with the more current term Shunyam meaning a blank. But interestingly the term Pujyam also means holy. Param-Pujya is a prefix used in written communication with elders. In this case it means respected or esteemed. The reason why the term Pujya - meaning blank - came to be sanctified can only be guessed. 

Indian philosophy has glorified concepts like the material world being an illusion Maya), the act of renouncing the material world (Tyaga) and the goal of merging into the void of eternity (Nirvana). Herein could lie the reason how the mathematical concept of zero got a philosophical connotation of reverence. 

It is possible that like the technique of algebra; the concept of zero also reached the west through the Arabs. In ancient India the terms used to describe zero included Pujyam, Shunyam, Bindu the concept of a void or blank was termed as Shukla and Shubra. The Arabs refer to the zero as Siphra or Sifr from which we have the English terms Cipher or Cypher. In English the term cipher connotes zero or any Arabic numeral. Thus it is evident that the term cipher is derived from the Arabic Sifr which in turn is quite close to the Sanskrit term Shubra. 

The ancient India astronomer Brahmagupta is credited with having put forth the concept of zero for the first time: Brahmagupta is said to have been born the year 598 A.D. at Bhillamala (today's Bhinmal ) in Gujarat, Western India. Not much is known about Brahmagupta's early life. We are told that his name as a mathematician was well established when K Vyaghramukha of the Chapa dynasty m him the court astronomer. Of his two treatises, Brahma-sputa Siddhanta and Karanakhandakhadyaka, first is more famous. It was a corrected version of the old Astronomical text, Brahma Siddhanta. It was in his Brahma-sphu Siddhanta, for the first time ever had be formulated the rules of the operation zero, foreshadowing the decimal system numeration. With the integration of zero into the numerals it became possible to note higher numerals with limited characters. 

In the earlier Roman and Babylonian systems of numeration, a large number of charaacters were required to denote higher numerals. Thus enumeration and computation became unwieldy. For instance, as E the Roman system of numeration, the number thirty would have to be written as X: while as per the decimal system it would 30, further the number thirty three would be XXXIII as per the Roman system, would be 33 as per the decimal system. Thus it is clear how the introduction of the decimal system made possible the writing of numerals having a high value with limited characters. This also made computation easier. 

Apart from developing the decimal system based on the incorporation of zero in enumeration, Brahmagupta also arrived at solutions for indeterminate equations of 1 type ax2+1=y2 and thus can be called the founder of higher branch of mathematics called numerical analysis. Brahmagupta's treatise Brahma-sputa-siddhanta was translated into Arabic under the title Sind Hind).

 For several centuries this translation remained a standard text of reference in the Arab world. It was from this translation of an Indian text on Mathematics that the Arab mathematicians perfected the decimal system and gave the world its current system of enumeration which we call the Arab numerals, which are originally Indian numerals.


Coinage dating from the 8th Century B.C. to the17th Century A.D. Numismatic evidence of the advances made by smelting technology in ancient India

It would be surprising for many Indians today to know that the concepts of atom (Ann, Parmanu) and relativity (Sapekshavada) were explicitly stated by an Indian philosopher nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. These ideas which were of fundamental import had been developed in India in a very abstract manner. This was so as their exponents were not physicians in today's sense of the term. They were philosophers and their ideas about the physical reality were integrated with those of philosophy and theology. 

The Five Basic Physical Elements

From the Vedic times, around 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C., Indians (Indo-Aryans) had classified the material world into four elements viz. Earth (Prithvi), fire (Agni), air (Maya) and water (Apa). To these four elements was added a fifth one viz. ether or Akasha. Ac cording to some scholars these five elements or Pancha Mahabhootas were identified with the various human senses of perception; earth with smell, air with feeling, fire with vision, water with taste and ether with sound. Whatever the validity behind this interpretation, it is true that since very ancient times Indians had perceived the material world as comprising these 5 elements. The Buddhist philosophers who came later, rejected ether as an element and replaced it with life, joy and sorrow. 


Since ancient times Indian philosophers believed that except Akash (ether), all other elements were physically palpable and hence comprised minuscule particles of matter. The last minuscule particle of matter which could not be subdivided further was termed Parmanu. The word Parmanu is a combination of Param, meaning beyond, and any meaning atom. Thus the term Parmanu is suggestive of the possibility that, at least at an abstract level Indian philosophers in ancient times had conceived the possibility of splitting an atom which, as we know today, is the source of atomic energy. This Indian concept of the atom was developed independently and prior to the development of the idea in the Greco-Roman world. The first Indian philosopher who formulated ideas about the atom in a systematic manner was Kanada who lived in the 6th century B.C. Another Indian philosopher, Pakudha Katyayana who also lived in the 6th century B.C. and was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, had also propounded ideas about the atomic constitution of the material world. 

These philosophers considered the Atom to be indestructible and hence eternal. The Buddhists believed atoms to be minute objects invisible to the naked eye and which come into being and vanish in an instant. The Vaisheshika school of philosophers believed that an atom was a mere point in space. Indian theories about the atom are greatly abstract and enmeshed in philosophy as they were based on logic and not on personal experience or experimentation. Thus the Indian theories lacked an empirical base, but in the words of A.L. Basham, the veteran Australian Indiologist "they were brilliant imaginative explanations of the physical structure of the world, and in a large measure, agreed with the discoveries of modern physics." 

The Story of Kanada

 The school of philosophy which contributed to the development of ideas about the atom was the Vaisheshika school. A brilliant philosopher by the name Kashyapa (later called Kanada) is credited with having propounded the concept of atom for the first time. According to legend, Kashyapa lived in the 6th century B.C. He was the son of a philosopher named Ulka. From his child days Kashyapa displayed a keen sense of observation. Minute things attracted his attention. The story goes that once when young boy he had accompanied his faith a pilgrimage to Prayaga, he noticed that thousands of pilgrims who were flocking the town littered its roads with flowers grains of rice which they offered at the temples by the river Ganges. While everybody else was busy offering prayers, or bathing the Ganges, the young Kashyapa started collecting the grains (Kana) of rice that littered the streets. 

Looking at this strange behavior coming from a boy who seemingly belonged to do family, many of the passers-by curious and started wondering who he could be and why was he acting in strange manner. Soon a crowd collected around the young Kashyapa who continued collecting the grains, oblivious of the attention he was attracting. Passing by that was Muni Somasharma a learned Sage, wondered why the crowd had gathered time when everybody should have been the bathing ghats for the morning's ritual bath. On going near he saw for himself reason and heard the derogatory remarks being made about the young Kashyapa. Muni Somasharma knew who Kashyapa was, he silenced the crowd and said that, knew who the boy was. 

Being himself curious to know the reason for Kashyapa's strange behavior, Somasharma asked him why he was counting discarded grains which even a beggar would not care to collect. Somewhat hurt at question, Kashyapa replied that howsoever minuscule an object might be, it nevertheless was a part of the universe. Individual grains in themselves may seem worthless, but a collection of some hundred grains make up a person's meal, the collection many meals would feed an entire family and ultimately the entire mankind was made of many families, thus even a single grain of rice was as important as all the valuable riches in this world.

This reply of the young Kashyapa deeply impressed Muni Somasharma who said that one day Kashyapa would grow into a celebrated philosopher and said that in recognition of Kayshapa's unusual sense of perceiving minuscule objects he would henceforth be Kanada, from Kana which means a grain.

This was how Kashyapa came to acquire the Kanada, which was made immortal in history of Indian science due to the path-breaking conception of atom and relativity which Kanada was to put forth. He propounded the Vaisheshika-Sutra (Peculiarity Aphorisms). These Sutras were a of science and philosophy. Their subject was the atomic theory of matter. On reading these Sutras we find that Kanada's atomic theory was far more advanced than formulated later by the Greek philosophers, Democritus and Leucippus. 

Anu and Parmanu 

It was Kanada who first propounded the that the Parmanu (atom) was an indestructible particle of matter. According to the material universe is made up of Kana. When matter is divided and subdivided, we reach a stage beyond which no division is possible, the indivisible element of matter is Parmanu. Kanada explained that this indivisible, indestructible y cannot be sensed through any human organ.

In saying that there are different types of Parmanu for the five Pancha Mahabhootas, Earth, water, fire, air and ether. Each Parmanu has a peculiar property which depends, on the substance to which it belongs . It was because of this conception of peculiarity of Parmanu (atoms) that this theory founded by Kanada came to be known Vaisheshika-Sutra (Peculiarity Aphorisms). In this context Kanada seems to arrived at conclusions which were surpassed only many centuries after him. 

According to Kanada, an object appears to be heavy under water than it does in air because the density of atoms in water is more than in air. The additional density of , in water, Kanada said, takes on part of the weight of an object, hence we feel only a part of its total weight, while in air, the lesser density of atoms results in a lesser part of an object's weight being picked by air, hence we feel the object to be heavier in air than what is was when under the water. In saying this, in a very elementary but important way, Kanada foreshadowed Archimedes' theory that a body immersed in a fluid is subject to an upward force equal in magnitude to the weight of the fluid it displaces. Kanada's idea also had shades of relativity in it which was propounded by Einstein in our times. 

About his ideas on atom, Kanada observed that an inherent urge made one Parmanu combine with another. When two Parmanu belonging to one class of substance combined, a dwinuka (binary molecule) was the result. This dwinuka had properties similar to the two parent Parmanu. In the material universe, according to him, Parmanu be longing to different classes of substances combine in different combinations giving us a variety of dwinuka, which in other words means different types of substances. Apart from such combination of different Parmanu, Kanada also put forth the idea of chemical changes occurring because of various factors. He claimed that variation in temperature could bring about such changes. 

He cited the examples of blackening of a new earthen pot and the ripening of fruit to illustrate the chemical change in substances brought about by the heat. Thus according to Kanada all substances, all matter that existed in the universe was formed of Parmanu (atoms). The variations in the matter reflected the peculiarity of the Parmanu which constituted that particular matter, the variety of combinations between different types of Parmanu and the effect on them of variation in temperature. 

These Indian ideas about atom and atomic physics could have been transmitted to the west during the contacts created between India and the west by the invasion of Alexander. The Greeks invaded north-western India in around 330 B C. Along with Alexander, came Greek philosophers like Aristotle who is reported to have been Alexander's mentor. Scholars like Aristotle would surely have keenly studied the sciences of the lands which the Greek armies overran. Even after Alexander's departure, massive trade and diplomatic relations existed between Indians and Greeks (who had settled in Asia) This way perhaps, Indian ideas could have traveled westwards where they were developed further. 

This image of Nataraja the God of Dance is made of five metals (Pancha-Dhatu). This technology of mixing 
two or more metals and deriving superior alloys was observed and noted by the Greek historian Philostratus.

Some scholars even go to the extent of saying that in Kanada's lifetime itself some Greek scholars had visited India and through a debate with the great philosopher had been exposed to Indian ideas about atom. the possibility of such a meeting is remote as Kanada lived in the 6th century B.C. and the Greeks came into India only in the 4th century B.C. But nevertheless it remains a fact that Indian ideas about atom are the oldest. It is only after the 4th century B.C., after the Greeks had come in contact with India do we find references to the idea of an atom in Greek science. Thus it is quite possible that the Greeks borrowed the ideas about atom from Indian philosophers in the 4th century B.C. But the credit of developing these ideas further, goes to the Greeks and other western philosophers. 


Parallel to the development of the concepts of atom and atomic permutations and combinations in physics there also was a similar development of ideas in the area of Chemistry. However given the nature of chemistry, the ideas did not remain confined to an abstract level. Indian ideas about chemistry grew by experimentation. The areas of application of the principle of chemistry were: the smelting of metals, the distillation of perfumes and fragrant ointments, the making of dyes and pigments, the extraction of sugar, etc. 
This exquisite mirrorwork is inlaid on a base of gold and brass. This dates back to the 12th century. 

Incidentally, the empirical nature of chemistry is also reflected in the word we use for substances i.e. Padartha which is a combination of two words Pada meaning 'step' and Artha which itself means 'meaning'. Thus the word Padartha can be literally * translated to mean 'meaning in steps'. Perhaps, this reflects the fact that in chemistry, knowledge was acquired step by step through experimentation and the actual process of day-to-day activities. 

In ancient India, chemistry was called Rasayan Shastra, Rasa-Vidya, Rasatantra and Rasakriya all of which roughly mean 'Science of liquids'. There also existed chemical laboratories and chemicals works, which were called Rasakriya-nagaram and Rasakriya-shala which literally mean 'School where liquids are activated'. A chemist was referred to as a Rasadnya and Rasa-tantra-vid which mean 'Person having knowledge about liquids. Apart from the term Rasa which means liquid, another word, Dravya which means slurry, was also used to refer to chemicals. Thus, in ancient India, chemistry was evidently developed to a significant level. 

Metallurgy was an important activity the world over. In fact the discovery of smelting of metals made possible the progress of society from the Stone Age to the Bronze and Iron Ages. In the area of smelting metals, Indians had acquired proficiency in the extraction of metals from ore, and also in the casting of metals. In very early times: around 2000 B.C. the idea of smelting metals was known in Mesopotamia and the Near East. It is possible that Indians could have borrowed the idea from an outside source. It is generally agreed that the Aryan tribes who are said to have destroyed the Indus Valley civilization had bronze weapons which helped them to overcome the otherwise more advanced people of the Indus cities. 

Though Indians could have had borrowed the idea of smelting metals from an outside source, they seem to have had used metals in warfare from around 1500 BCE when the Aryans are said to have invaded the Indus Valley cities. The next definite reference to the use of metals by Indian soldiers is by the Greeks. The Greek historian Herodotus has observed in the 5th century that "Indians in the Persian army used arrows tipped with iron". Indian steel and iron were reportedly being used by the Romans for manufacturing armor as well as cutlery. But these references apart, it is in India itself that we find actual objects that reflect the advancement of the technique of smelting. 

The Iron Pillar at Delhi

The Iron Pillar at Delhi is one such instance. This Pillar, located near the Kutb Minar, is estimated to have been cast in the Gupta period i.e. about 1500 years ago. The Pillar is 7.32 meters in length, tapering from a diameter of 40 cms at the base to 30 cms, at the top and it weights about 6 tons. It has been standing in open for more than a millennium in the heat, dust and rain, but except for the natural erosion it has not caught rust. This kind of a rust-proof iron had not been smelted anywhere else in the world, till we invented the stainless steel a few decades ago. 

Another instance of Indian metallurgy is the copper statue of Gautama Buddha found at Sultan Ganj in Bihar. The statue is 2.13 meters high and weighs nearly a ton. There are many such examples that bear testimony to the excellence in smelting metals achieved in India in ancient times. 

The ironsmiths who had cast the iron pillar and the statue of Buddha must not only have been experts at their job but they must have inherited the technique that had been perfected over many generations. The Iron Pillar itself testifies to the fact that Indian metallurgy and chemistry had reached a high stage of perfection more than 1500 years ago. Nagarjuna was one such practitioner of the technique of combining various metals in order to invent a superior metal. 

The Makara (Spire) over Hindu temples were always adorned with brass or gold toppings (Kamandals). The earliest reference to the advances made in smelting technology in India are by Greek historians in the 4th century B.C.

Nagarjuna was born at Fort Daihak near the famous shrine of Somnath in Gujarat in 931 A.D. He was a chemist, or an alchemist, as his efforts had been concentrated on transforming the base metals into gold. We are told that he had acquired such a reputation, due to his activities, that the people believed that Nagarjuna was in communion with gods and goddesses who had blessed him with the power of changing base metals into gold and the extracting of 'elixir of life'. 

Nagarjuna apparently reveled in the idea of his being looked upon as blessed by the gods. He himself added to this belief by writing his treatise, Rasaratnakara in the form of a dialogue between him and the gods. The treatise dealt with the preparation of rasa (liquids, mainly mercury). Nagarjuna has discussed various combinations of liquids in this volume. His treatise, the Rasaratnakara also gave a survey of the status of metallurgy and alchemy as it existed in India in those days. 

Methods for the extraction of metals like gold, silver, tin and copper from their ores and their purification were also mentioned, in Rasaratnakara. In his attempt to prepare the 'elixir of life' from mercury, Nagarjuna made use of animal and vegetable products, apart from minerals and alkalis. For the dissolution of diamonds, metals and pearls, he suggested the use of vegetable acids like sour gruel and juices of fruits and bark. 

In his treatise, he has also listed the apparatus that was used by earlier alchemists. The process of distillation, liquefaction, sublimation and roasting were also mentioned. Nagarjuna also discussed, in detail, the possibility of transmutation of base metals into gold. But although he could not produce gold, these techniques did yield metals with gold like yellowish brilliance. Till today these methods are being used to manufacture imitation jewelry. 

Nagarjuna has also discussed methods for the preparation of mercury like calamine. Later Nagarjuna seems to have turned towards organic chemistry and medicine. He has written a text called Uttaratantra which is supposed to be a supplement to an earlier text the Shusrutasamahita which is said to have been written by Shusruta in the 8th century B.C. 

Nagarjuna's Uttaratantra deals mainly with the preparation of medicinal drugs. He also wrote four Ayurvedic treatises named Arogyamanjari Kakshaputatantra, Yogasara and Yogasatak. 

Thus Nagarjuna seems to have been a copious writer. As he lived in the 10th century his works incorporate the ideas of earlier chemists and physicians. Only a few decades after Nagarjuna, India was invaded by the Mohammedans: Mahmud of Ghazni had raided and plundered Nagarjuna's hometown of Somnath in 1020 A.D. It is possible that Nagarjuna's texts fell into the hands of the invaders. 

While the invaders ruthlessly destroyed the architectural achievements of this country and imposed their despotic rule, they also transmitted Indian sciences to the outside world. 

Along with Mahmud of Ghazni came scholars like Al Beruni who studied Indian texts and translated them into Arabic. Many Indian ideas of medicine were incorporated into the Unani system of medicine of the Arabs. Nagarjuna's works could not have escaped their attention. It is possible that the technique of alchemy was borrowed by the Arabs from India. In the ancient world there is no reference to alchemy. We first hear of it in the medieval Europe. The homeland of the Arabs is not rich in metals, thus alchemy and the smelting of metals could not have been indigenous to the Arabs. 

Thus the Arabs seem to have borrowed the technique of transforming base metals info gold-like metals from India. The Arabs called the technique Al Kimia which accord *ing to the Oxford Dictionary literally means the 'transformation of metals'. Al means 'The' and Khimia which is derived from the Greek term Khemia means 'to transmute metals'. 

But westerners did not appear to have had the knowledge of the technique of alchemy. This is borne out by the fact that the term Alchemy which the westerners use for describing this technique was borrowed from the Arabs. The word Alchemy is obviously a corruption of the term Al Kimia which the Arabs gave to the technique of converting base metals into goldlike substances which they culled out from Indian texts on the subject.


Medical science was one area were surprising advances had been made in ancient times in India. Specifically these advances were in the areas of plastic surgery, extraction of cataracts, dental surgery, etc., These are not just tall claims. There is documentary evidence to prove the existence of these practices. 
An artist's impression of an operation being performed in ancient India. In spite of the absence of anesthesia,
complex operations were performed


The practice of surgery has been recorded in India around 800 B.C. This need not come as a surprise because surgery (Shastrakarma) is one of the eight branches of Ayurveda the ancient Indian system of medicine. The oldest treatise dealing with surgery is the Shushruta-Samahita (Shushruta's compendium). Shusruta who lived in Kasi was one of the many Indian medical practitioners who included Atraya and Charaka. 

Shushruta was one of the first to study the human anatomy. In the ShusrutaSamahita he has described in detail the study of anatomy with the aid of a dead body. Shusruta's forte was rhinoplasty (Plastic surgery) and ophthalmology (ejection of cataracts). Shushruta has described surgery under eight heads Chedya (excision), Lekhya (scarification), Vedhya (puncturing), Esya (exploration), Ahrya (extraction), Vsraya (evacuation) and Sivya (Suturing). 

OPHTHALMIC SURGERY: Shushruta specialized in ophthalmic surgery (extraction of Cataracts). A typically operation per formed by Shushruta for removing cataracts is described below. "It was a bright morning. The surgeon sat on a bench which was as high as his knees. The patient sat opposite on the ground so that the doctor was at a comfortable height for doing the operation on the patient's eye. After having taken bath and food, that patient had been tied so that he could not move during the operation." 

An artist's impression of the great medicine man Shushruta (the term and concept 'Doctor' did not exist then). Shushruta lived in the 8th century B.C. and has authored the Shushruta Samahita "Shushruta's Compendium on Medicine"

"The doctor warmed the patient's eye with the breath ~ of his mouth. He rubbed the closed eye of the patient with his thumb and then asked the patient to look at his knees. The patient's head was held firmly. The doctor held the lancet between his fore-finger, middle finger and thumb and introduced it into the patient's eye towards the pupil, half a finger's breadth from the black of the eye and a quarter of a finger's breadth from the outer corner of the eye. He moved the lancet gracefully back and forth and upward. There was a small sound and a drop of water came out. 

"The doctor spoke a few words to comfort the patient and moistened the eye with milk. He scratched the pupil with the tip or the lancet, without hurting, and then drove the 'slime' towards the nose. The patient got rid of the 'slime' by drawing it into his nose. It was a matter of joy for the patient that the could see objects through his operated eye and the doctor drew the lancet out slowly. He then laid cotton soaked in fat on the wound and the patient lay still with the operated eye bandaged. It was the patient's left eye and the doctor used his right hand for the operation." 

Does this not sound like the detailed procedure and steps of a cataract operation by an ophthalmic surgeon? But this operation was performed around the 8th Century B.C. by Shusruta. 

ANATOMY: Shushruta was not only one of the earliest pioneers in surgery in the world but also one of the earliest ones to study the human anatomy. In his Samahita, he described in detail the study of anatomy with the use of a dead body. 

He has described the following in his Samahita, "For these purposes, a perfectly preserved body must be used. It should be the body of a person who is not very old and did not die of poison or severe disease. After the intestine have been cleaned, the body must be wrapped in bast (the inner bark of trees), grass or hemp and placed in cage (for pro *tection against animals). The cage should be placed in a carefully concealed spot in a river with fairly gentle current, and the body left to soften. 

An artist's impression of the surgical tools used in ancient India.

"After seven days the body is to be removed from the water and with a brush of grassroots, hair and bamboo it should be brushed off a layer at a time when this is done the eye can observe every large or small outer or inner part of the body, beginning with the skin as each part is laid bare by the brushing." 

PLASTIC SURGERY: Perhaps the greatest contribution of Shushruta was the operation of rhinoplasty (restoration of a mutilated nose by plastic surgery). The detailed description of the rhinoplasty operation in the Shushruta Samahita is amazingly meticulous and comprehensive. There is evidence to show that his success in this kind of surgery was very high, which attracted people from all over the country and perhaps even from outside. Cutting off of the nose and ears was one of the common modes of punishment in the early Indian kingdoms. 

Shushruta moved by his intense humane approach to life and equipped with superb surgical skills, did the operation of rhinoplasty with remarkable skill, grace and success. The details of the steps of this operation, as recorded in the Shushruta Samahita, are amazingly similar to the steps that are followed even to-day in such advanced plastic surgery. 

Indian medical tradition also goes back to Vedic times when the Ashwinikumars, who were practitioners of medicine were given a divine status,. We also have a God of Medicine called Dhanvantari. In historic times the earliest recorded treatise on medicine in India viz., the Shushruta Samahita is dated around the 8th century B.C. Plastic surgery dentistry operation of cataracts, were pioneering advances, in the field of medicine. 


This is the indigenous system of medicine in India. Ayurveda literally means 'the science of living' (longevity). Ayu means life and Veda means knowledge. The origins of this system of medicine are lost in the hoary past, and the body of knowledge that comes under the heading Ayurveda constitutes ideas about diseases, diagnosis and cure, which have been accumulated over the ages past. 

The feature that distinguishes this system of medicines from other systems like Allopathy and Homeopathy is that it is solely based on herbs and herbal compounds. This it shares in common with the ideas on this area in tribal societies. But what makes Ayurveda, a scientific art of healing is its disassociation from the magical aspect which tribal forms of healing normally have. Hence the practitioner of Ayurveda could never degenerate to the level of a shaman or witch-doctor. Hocus pocus and voodoo which are still widely prevalent in rural India could not become a part of Ayurveda as it always retained a physical link between the disease and its cure. 

According to Charaka, a noted practitioner of Ayurveda in ancient India: "A physician who fails to enter the body of a patient with the lamp of knowledge and understanding can never treat diseases. He should first study all the factors, including environment, which influence a patient's disease, and then prescribe treatment. It is more important to prevent the occurrence of disease than to seek a cure". 

These remarks may appear rudimentary today, but they were made by Charaka, some 20 centuries ago in his famous Ayurvedic treatise Charaka Samahita. The treatise contains many more such remarks which are held in reverence even today. Some of them are in the fields of physiology, etiology and embryology. Charaka was the first physician to present the concept of digestion. metabolism and immunity. 

According to him a body functions because it contains three dosha or humors, namely, bile, phlegm and wind. These dosha are produced when dhatus, namely blood, flesh and marrow, act upon the food eaten. For the same quantity of food eaten, one body, however, produces dosha in an amount different from another body. That is why one body is different from another. For instance, it is more weighty, stronger, more energetic, Further, illness is caused when the balance among the three dosha in a human body is disturbed. To restore the balance Charaka prescribed medicinal drugs. 

Charaka also knew the fundamentals of genetics. For instance, he knew the factors determining the sex of a child. A genetic defect in a child, like lameness or blindness, he said, was not due to any defect in the mother or the father, but in the ovum or sperm of the parents which is today an accepted fact. 

Under the guidance of the ancient physician Atreya, another physician named Agnivesa had written an encyclopedic treatise in the eighth- century B.C. However, it was only when Charaka revised this treatise that it gained popularity and came to be known as Charaka-samahita. For two millenniums it remained a standard work on the subject and was translated into many foreign languages, including Arabic and Latin. 

The medical system of Ayurveda draws heavily from the doctrines developed in the Charaka-Samahita. The main quality which Ayurveda has borrowed from Charaka is its aim of removing the cause for illness and not just curing the disease itself. In Ayurveda there are no such things as instant relievers, pain killers or antibiotics. The herbs used in Ayurvedic remedies do not operate against the body's metabolism, their effect is registered gradually and hence there are minimum side effects. The constituents of Ayurvedic medicines are largely based on organic matter. The absence of fast registering inorganic compounds which are at times corrosive, contributes to the absence of side effects from Ayurvedic medicines. 

This art of healing had been held in high esteem in ancient India. It was elevated to a divine status and Dhanvantari the practitioner of this art was deified as the God of Medicine. Even ordinary practitioners of this art - the Ashwinikumars - were given a special status in mythology and folklore. Although very few ancient texts are available today, this method of healing was systematized in early times. The fact that the term Veda was attached to this body of thought testifies to this. 

Knowledge of this art was spread among sages, hermits and medicos who roamed from place to place. Those who practiced solely this art were called Vaidyas and they generally belonged to the Brahmin caste. Knowledge of this art was passed from generation to generation. But it remains surprising how this vocation did not obtain the status of a separate caste. 

The absence of a caste, wherein this body of ideas could get crystallized and changeless which incidentally could ensure their preservation, along with the absence of a system for regular education and training for practitioners of the art has resulted in its gradual though partial withering over a period of time. The above two lacunae also resulted in the emergence of quackery and made it difficult to distinguish bona fide practitioners from quacks in absence of professional standards. These lacunae have been identified in modern times and recently, organized efforts have been launched to revive and nourish this flagging discipline. 


 Yoga is a system of exercises for physical and mental nourishment. The tradition of Yoga is a hoary one and has been kept alive by ascetics and hermits. The therapeutic qualities of yoga had special relevance for hermits who roamed from place to place, meditating. We normally see an ascetic (Sadhu) meditating in a Yogic pose. Indian classical dance styles also display many Yogic postures. Apart from being a system of exercise, an important aspect of Yoga is that of self-discipline. 
An artist's impression of a Yogi outside a hermitage. The Yogi below is depicted doing the Paschim-ottana-asana

The term Yoga is itself derived from the Sanskrit word "yoktra" meaning a yoke. The etymological closeness of the Sanskrit and English words is striking. They have exactly the same meaning. The self-discipline aspect of Yoga is evident in the qualities of holding the breath (in Pranayama), absolute stiIlness (in Shavasana), celibacy (Bramhacharya). There are innumerable asanas (poses) in Yoga.

 Most of them derive their names from the semblance of the body in those poses to different animals and objects. For instance, there is a Matsyasana (fish pose), Mayurasana (peacock pose), Simhasana (lion pose), Halasana (plough pose), etc. But Yoga is a multifarious system, there are various forms of discipline touching different aspects of human life, which are brought under the heading Yoga. We have Hathayoga (bodily exercise), Gyanyoga or Dnyanyoga (exercise for the mind and intellect), Karmayoga (discipline in our actions in daily life). 

It was as early as the 2nd century B.C. i.e. 2100 years ago that the fundamentals of Yoga were systematically presented. The person who is credited with having done this is Patanjali and his treatise is known as Yogasutra i.e. Yoga Aphorisms. According to Patanjali, within the human body there are channels called Nadi and centers called Chakra. If these are tapped, The energy hidden in the body can be released. This energy is called Kundalini. The release of Kundalini enables the body to acquire many powers which are normally beyond its capability. 

Patanjali gives eight stages of Yoga viz., Yama (universal moral commandments), Niyama (self-purification through discipline), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of mind from external objects), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (state of super-consciousness) . 

But though the Yogasutras were formulated two thousand years ago, Yoga has been practiced for countless generations, it is only in the last few years that scientists have begun to recognize the powers of yoga. It has now been established through experiments that by practicing Yoga, several ailments can be cured. Tests conducted on Yogis show that they do acquire extraordinary physical powers. For instance, they can live without oxygen for a long time, they can also adjust their metabolism if they have to remain without food for long periods. 

Traditionally, Yoga in the strict sense has been practiced by Sadhus and Sanyasis (sages and hermits) who had renounced material pleasures and roamed the country, meditating and spreading the gospel of truth as they perceived it. 

In ancient times the teaching of Yoga was also an integral part of the traditional manner of education as imparted in Ashramas and Gurukulas which were presided over by hermits. Though education in these Ashramas was open only to a few, the practice of Yoga in its lesser strict versions has been popular among the common people all through the ages. In the present age though not much is being done officially to promote the practice of Yoga in India and abroad, the spiritual movements originating in India which find many adherents in the West are a medium for the spread of Yoga. 

Although the Ashramas are vanishing, the tradition of Yoga is kept alive today by Gymnasiums. Students of Indian classical dances have to undergo some of Yogic training. But the field where the application of Yoga is being increasingly recognized is physiotherapy. 

This information originally found at