India has sadly forgotten its pre-Independence scientific contributions

Subhash Kak
Subhash KakAug 17, 2016 | 12:43

India has sadly forgotten its pre-Independence scientific contributions

There is the claim that modern India has not made scientific contributions commensurate with its population and resources, because Indians remain unconnected with their own scientific tradition.

There were scientific giants in India before Independence and the names of Jagadish Chandra Bose, Satyendra Nath Bose, Meghnad Saha, CV Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujan and Yellapragada Subbarow come to mind.

They made their contributions when there were few opportunities for research in Indian colleges and universities.


Compared to that difficult period, Indian universities have been well supported after Independence. A few scientists have achieved greatness but most of them did so after leaving India.

In any event, the contributions of Indian science since Independence are nowhere commensurate with the investment in higher education and the expansion of the university system in India.

Not one Indian university figures in the top 200 list of the world, and we appear to be slipping compared to other nations.

India’s top university, the Indian Institute of Science, is at the 6th place in BRICS rankings.

Universities in Australia, Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong have leapfrogged over Indian universities in world rankings.

How are Indian universities doing within the less competitive BRICS countries? In the latest QS BRICS Rankings, China has 45 of the top 100 places, where India has only 13.

China's top five universities are in ranks 1 through 5 whereas India's top university, the Indian Institute of Science, is at the 6th place.

Given this sorry situation, it is confusing to be told that Indian ideas have played a crucial role in the development of modern science.

We are not just talking about the symbol zero, algebra and astronomy, but also inoculation in medicine, the periodic table of chemical elements, the field of linguistics, and the birth of quantum mechanics (if the claim of its creator Erwin Schrödinger is to be believed), to mention just a few. We would rather believe that these are tall tales.


In the West, almost all scientists are interested in the philosophical tradition of science going back to the Greeks.

They also write on their experience for the general public and doing so bring the excitement of science to a wider audience.

Some Indian scientists have indeed written for the general public. But I know of no one excepting JC Bose and CV Raman who tried to present the philosophical bases of their research.

Many Indians (including scientists) consider science as the job they must do for their company or university, but yet believe in magical thinking when it comes to the consideration of larger scientific issues.

Others, when they have retired from their careers, go straight from physics to metaphysics and expound on the unreality of this world!

But it is true that India has a marvellous tradition of science that goes back to Kanada's Vaisesika, which is a 2,500-year-old text of physics. This text was known to pre-Independence Indian scientists but has been overlooked since.

I recently did a translation of this text under the title Matter and Mind, which for the first time takes a look at it from the perspective of physics and not just that of philosophy.


Kanada starts with six categories (padarthas) that are nameable and knowable, proposing they are sufficient to describe everything in the universe from concrete matter to the abstract atom. What could be more rational and logical than that?

He speaks of four kinds of atoms of which two have mass (one heavier than the other) and two that do not.

Just imagining this should be worthy of celebration even if it is only a coincidence that modern physics also has four stable atoms, namely proton, electron, neutrino, and photon. The Greek philosophers are praised for much less.

Kanada does something additional that no one has attempted: he describes a system that has place not only for inert matter but also minds and consciousness.

He also sees chemistry and biology as arising out of the various combinations of atoms.

Texts like this should be a source of inspiration and they belong to India's sastric (scientific) tradition where the idea was to use logic and relentless questioning to arrive at insights about reality.

It is good to know that the rishis of yore were not only interested in matters of the spirit but also of this lived life.


Subhash Kak, Matter and Mind

Last updated: August 17, 2016 | 17:58
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