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Ancient India's Contribution to



Ancient Indian theories lacked an empirical base,
but they were brilliant imaginative explanations
of the physical structure of the world, and in a large measure,
agreed with the discoveries of modern physics.

- A.L. Basham,
Australian Indologist


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 brith 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.

Table of Contents






Chapter 1:

Production Technology and
Mechanical Engineering


Chapter 2

Shipbuilding and Navigation


Chapter 3

Architecture and Civil Engineering


Chapter 4



Chapter 5



You are currently viewing Chapter 6 on Physics


Chapter 7

Medical Science


Chapter 8

Fine Arts


Chapter 9

Sports and Games


Chapter 10



Chapter 11

Summing Up



Sanskrit-English Glossary


Next Book

A Search for Our Present
in History


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 miniscule particles of matter. The last miniscule 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 Indologist "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 phi losopher named Ulka. From his child days Kashyapa displayed a keen sense c servation. Minute things attracted his attention. The story goes that once when young boy he had accompanied his fath 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 tmples 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 behaviour 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 behaviour, 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 miniscule 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 miniscule 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 indestrutible particle of matter. According to the material universe is made up of Kana. When matter is divided and sudivided, we reach a stage beyond which no division is possible, the undivisible 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 unded 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 Einstien 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 occuring 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. Alongwith 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 travelled 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
has been 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 caled 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 Mesopotemia 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 B.G 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 armour 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 Kutab Minar, is estimated to have been cast in the Gupta period i.e. about 1500 years ago. The Pillar is 7.32 metres in length, tapering from a diameter of 40 cms at the base to 30 cms, at the top and it weights about 6 tonnes. It has been standing in open for more than a millenium 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 metres high and weighs nearly a tonne. 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 viz,
Philostratus and Ktesias 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 revelled in the idea of his being looked upon as blessed by the gods. He himself added to this 1belief 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 brillance. Till today these methods are being used to manufacture imitation jewellery.

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.

Alongwith 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 medieaval 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 transumute 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 A1chemy 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.


Next Chapter

Ancient India's Contribution to Medical Science



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