Ancient History & Civilisation

The Life of the Mind


Its religious origins—Astronomers—Mathematicism—The “Arabic” numerals—The decimal system—Algebra—Geometry—Physics—Chemistry—Physiology—Vedic medicine—Physicians—Surgeons—Anesthetics—Vaccination—Hypnotism

INDIA’S work in science is both very old and very young: young as an independent and secular pursuit, old as a subsidiary interest of her priests. Religion being the core of Hindu life, those sciences were cultivated first that contributed to religion: astronomy grew out of the worship of the heavenly bodies, and the observation of their movements aimed to fix the calendar of festival and sacrificial days; grammar and philology developed out of the insistence that every prayer and formula, though couched in a dead language, should be textually and phonetically correct.1 As in our Middle Ages, the scientists of India, for better and for worse, were her priests.

Astronomy was an incidental offspring of astrology, and slowly emancipated itself under Greek influence. The earliest astronomical treatises, the Siddhantas (ca. 425 B.C.), were based on Greek science,3 and Varahamihira, whose compendium was significantly entitled Complete System of Natural Astrology, frankly acknowledged his dependence upon the Greeks. The greatest of Hindu astronomers and mathematicians, Aryabhata, discussed in verse such poetic subjects as quadratic equations, sines, and the value of π; he explained eclipses, solstices and equinoxes, announced the sphericity of the earth and its diurnal revolution on its axis, and wrote, in daring anticipation of Renaissance science: “The sphere of the stars is stationary, and the earth, by its revolution, produces the daily rising and setting of planets and stars.”4 His most famous successor, Brahmagupta, systematized the astronomic knowledge of India, but obstructed its development by rejecting Aryabhata’s theory of the revolution of the earth. These men and their followers adapted to Hindu usage the Babylonian division of the skies into zodiacal constellations; they made a calendar of twelve months, each of thirty days, each of thirty hours, inserting an intercalary month every five years; they calculated with remarkable accuracy the diameter of the moon, the eclipses of the moon and the sun, the position of the poles, and the position and motion of the major stars.5 They expounded the theory, though not the law, of gravity when they wrote in the Siddhantas: “The earth, owing to its force of gravity, draws all things to itself.”6

To make these complex calculations the Hindus developed a system of mathematics superior, in everything except geometry, to that of the Greeks.7 Among the most vital parts of our Oriental heritage are the “Arabic” numerals and the decimal system, both of which came to us, through the Arabs, from India. The miscalled “Arabic” numerals are found on the Rock Edicts of Ashoka (256 B.C.), a thousand years before their occurrence in Arabic literature. Said the great and magnanimous Laplace:

It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by ten symbols, each receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity, the great ease which it has lent to all computations, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.8

The decimal system was known to Aryabhata and Brahmagupta long before its appearance in the writings of the Arabs and the Syrians; it was adopted by China from Buddhist missionaries; and Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi, the greatest mathematician of his age (d. ca. 850 A.D.), seems to have introduced it into Baghdad. The oldest known use of the zero in Asia or Europe* is in an Arabic document dated 873 A.D., three years sooner than its first known appearance in India; but by general consent the Arabs borrowed this too from India,9 and the most modest and most valuable of all numerals is one of the subtle gifts of India to mankind.

Algebra was developed in apparent independence by both the Hindus and the Greeks;* but our adoption of its Arabic name (al-jabr, adjustment) indicates that it came to western Europe from the Arabs—i.e., from India—rather than from Greece.10 The great Hindu leaders in this field, as in astronomy, were Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara. The last (b. 1114 A.D.), appears to have invented the radical sign, and many algebraic symbols.12 These men created the conception of a negative quantity, without which algebra would have been impossible;13 they formulated rules for finding permutations and combinations; they found the square root of 2, and solved, in the eighth century A.D., indeterminate equations of the second degree that were unknown to Europe until the days of Euler a thousand years later.14 They expressed their science in poetic form, and gave to mathematical problems a grace characteristic of India’s Golden Age. These two may serve as examples of simpler Hindu algebra:

Out of a swarm of bees one-fifth part settled on a Kadamba blossom; one-third on a Silindhra flower; three times the difference of those numbers flew to the bloom of a Kutaja. One bee, which remained, hovered about in the air. Tell me, charming woman, the number of bees. . . . Eight rubies, ten emeralds, and a hundred pearls, which are in thy ear-ring, my beloved, were purchased by me for thee at an equal amount; and the sum of the prices of the three sorts of gems was three less than half a hundred; tell me the price of each, auspicious woman.15

The Hindus were not so successful in geometry. In the measurement and construction of altars the priests formulated the Pythagorean theorem (by which the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other sides) several hundred years before the birth of Christ.16 Aryabhata, probably influenced by the Greeks, found the area of a triangle, a trapezium and a circle, and calculated the value of π (the relation of diameter to circumference in a circle) at 3.1416—a figure not equaled in accuracy until the days of Purbach (1423-61) in Europe.17 Bhaskara crudely anticipated the differential calculus, Aryabhata drew up a table of sines, and the Surya Siddhanta provided a system of trigonometry more advanced than anything known to the Greeks.18

Two systems of Hindu thought propound physical theories suggestively similar to those of Greece. Kanada, founder of the Vaisheshika philosophy, held that the world was composed of atoms as many in kind as the various elements. The Jains more nearly approximated to Democritus by teaching that all atoms were of the same kind, producing different effects by diverse modes of combination.19 Kanada believed light and heat to be varieties of the same substance; Udayana taught that all heat comes from the sun; and Vachaspati, like Newton, interpreted light as composed of minute particles emitted by substances and striking the eye.20 Musical notes and intervals were analyzed and mathematically calculated in the Hindu treatises on music;* and the “Pythagorean Law” was formulated by which the number of vibrations, and therefore the pitch of the note, varies inversely as the length of the string between the point of attachment and the point of touch. There is some evidence that Hindu mariners of the first centuries A.D. used a compass made by an iron fish floating in a vessel of oil and pointing north.21

Chemistry developed from two sources—medicine and industry. Something has been said about the chemical excellence of cast iron in ancient India, and about the high industrial development of Gupta times, when India was looked to, even by Imperial Rome, as the most skilled of the nations in such chemical industries as dyeing, tanning, soap-making, glass and cement. As early as the second century B.C. Nagarjuna devoted an entire volume to mercury. By the sixth century the Hindus were far ahead of Europe in industrial chemistry; they were masters of calcination, distillation, sublimation, steaming, fixation, the production of light without heat, the mixing of anesthetic and soporific powders, and the preparation of metallic salts, compounds and alloys. The tempering of steel was brought in ancient India to a perfection unknown in Europe till our own times; King Porus is said to have selected, as a specially valuable gift for Alexander, not gold or silver, but thirty pounds of steel.22 The Moslems took much of this Hindu chemical science and industry to the Near East and Europe; the secret of manufacturing “Damascus” blades, for example, was taken by the Arabs from the Persians, and by the Persians from India.22a

Anatomy and physiology, like some aspects of chemistry, were by-products of Hindu medicine. As far back as the sixth century B.C. Hindu physicians described ligaments, sutures, lymphatics, nerve plexus, fascia, adipose and vascular tissues, mucous and synovial membranes, and many more muscles than any modern cadaver is able to show.23 The doctors of pre-Christian India shared Aristotle’s mistaken conception of the heart as the seat and organ of consciousness, and supposed that the nerves ascended to and descended from the heart. But they understood remarkably well the processes of digestion—the different functions of the gastric juices, the conversion of chyme into chyle, and of this into blood.24 Anticipating Weismann by 2400 years, Atreya (ca. 500 B.C.) held that the parental seed is independent of the parent’s body, and contains in itself, in miniature, the whole parental organism.25 Examination for virility was recommended as a prerequisite for marriage in men; and the Code of Manu warned against marrying mates affected with tuberculosis, epilepsy, leprosy, chronic dyspepsia, piles, or loquacity.26 Birth control in the latest theological fashion was suggested by the Hindu medical schools of 500 B.C. in the theory that during twelve days of the menstrual cycle impregnation is impossible.27 Fœtal development was described with considerable accuracy; it was noted that the sex of the fœtus remains for a time undetermined, and it was claimed that in some cases the sex of the embryo could be influenced by food or drugs.28

The records of Hindu medicine begin with the Atharva-veda; here, embedded in a mass of magic and incantations, is a list of diseases with their symptoms. Medicine arose as an adjunct to magic: the healer studied and used earthly means of cure to help his spiritual formulas; later he relied more and more upon such secular methods, continuing the magic spell, like our bedside manner, as a psychological aid. Appended to the Atharva-veda is the Ajur-veda (“The Science of Longevity”). In this oldest system of Hindu medicine illness is attributed to disorder in one of the four humors (air, water, phlegm and blood), and treatment is recommended with herbs and charms. Many of its diagnoses and cures are still used in India, with a success that is sometimes the envy of Western physicians. The Rig-veda names over a thousand such herbs, and advocates water as the best cure for most diseases. Even in Vedic times physicians and surgeons were being differentiated from magic doctors, and were living in houses surrounded by gardens in which they cultivated medicinal plants.29

The great names in Hindu medicine are those of Sushruta in the fifth century before, and Charaka in the second century after Christ. Sushruta, professor of medicine in the University of Benares, wrote down in Sanskrit a system of diagnosis and therapy whose elements had descended to him from his teacher Dhanwantari. His book dealt at length with surgery, obstetrics, diet, bathing, drugs, infant feeding and hygiene, and medical education.30 Charaka composed a Samhita (or encyclopedia) of medicine, which is still used in India,31 and gave to his followers an almost Hippocratic conception of their calling: “Not for self, not for the fulfilment of any earthly desire of gain, but solely for the good of suffering humanity should you treat your patients, and so excell all.”32 Only less illustrious than these are Vagbhata (625 A.D.), who prepared a medical compendium in prose and verse, and Bhava Misra (1550 A.D.), whose voluminous work on anatomy, physiology and medicine mentioned, a hundred years before Harvey, the circulation of the blood, and prescribed mercury for that novel disease, syphilis, which had recently been brought in by the Portuguese as part of Europe’s heritage to India.33

Sushruta described many surgical operations—cataract, hernia, lithotomy, Cæsarian section, etc.—and 121 surgical instruments, including lancets, sounds, forceps, catheters, and rectal and vaginal speculums.34 Despite Brahmanical prohibitions he advocated the dissection of dead bodies as indispensable in the training of surgeons. He was the first to graft upon a torn ear portions of skin taken from another part of the body; and from him and his Hindu successors rhinoplasty—the surgical reconstruction of the nose—descended into modern medicine.35 “The ancient Hindus,” says Garrison, “performed almost every major operation except ligation of the arteries.”36 Limbs were amputated, abdominal sections were performed, fractures were set, hemorrhoids and fistulas were removed. Sushruta laid down elaborate rules for preparing an operation, and his suggestion that the wound be sterilized by fumigation is one of the earliest known efforts at antiseptic surgery.37 Both Sushruta and Charaka mention the use of medicinal liquors to produce insensibility to pain. In 927 A.D. two surgeons trepanned the skull of a Hindu king, and made him insensitive to the operation by administering a drug called Samohini. *38

For the detection of the 1120 diseases that he enumerated, Sushruta recommended diagnosis by inspection, palpation, and auscultation.40 Taking of the pulse was described in a treatise dating 1300 A.D.41 Urinalysis was a favorite method of diagnosis; Tibetan physicians were reputed able to cure any patient without having seen anything more of him than his water.42 In the time of Yuan Chwang Hindu medical treatment began with a seven-day fast; in this interval the patient often recovered; if the illness continued, drugs were at last employed.43 Even then drugs were used very sparingly; reliance was placed largely upon diet, baths, enemas, inhalations, urethral and vaginal injections, and blood-lettings by leeches or cups.44 Hindu physicians were especially skilled in concocting antidotes for poisons; they still excel European physicians in curing snakebites.45Vaccination, unknown to Europe before the eighteenth century, was known in India as early as 550 A.D., if we may judge from a text attributed to Dhanwantari, one of the earliest Hindu physicians: “Take the fluid of the pock on the udder of the cow . . . upon the point of a lancet, and lance with it the arms between the shoulders and elbows until the blood appears; then, mixing the fluid with the blood, the fever of the small-pox will be produced.”46 Modern European physicians believe that caste separateness was prescribed because of the Brahman belief in invisible agents transmitting disease; many of the laws of sanitation enjoined by Sushruta and “Manu” seem to take for granted what we moderns, who love new words for old things, call the germ theory of disease.47 Hypnotism as therapy seems to have originated among the Hindus, who often took their sick to the temples to be cured by hypnotic suggestion or “temple-sleep,” as in Egypt and Greece.48 The Englishmen who introduced hypnotherapy into England—Braid, Esdaile and Elliotson—“undoubtedly got their ideas, and some of their experience, from contact with India.”49

The general picture of Indian medicine is one of rapid development in the Vedic and Buddhist periods, followed by centuries of slow and cautious improvement. How much Atreya, Dhanwantari and Sushruta owed to Greece, and how much Greece owed to them, we do not know. In the time of Alexander, says Garrison, “Hindu physicians and surgeons enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for superior knowledge and skill,” and even Aristotle is believed by some students to have been indebted to them.50 So too with the Persians and the Arabs: it is difficult to say how much Indian medicine owed to the physicians of Baghdad, and through them to the heritage of Babylonian medicine in the Near East; on the one hand certain remedies, like opium and mercury, and some modes of diagnosis, like feeling the pulse, appear to have entered India from Persia; on the other we find Persians and Arabs translating into their languages, in the eighth century A.D., the thousand-year-old compendia of Sushruta and Charaka.51 The great Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid accepted the preeminence of Indian medicine and scholarship, and imported Hindu physicians to organize hospitals and medical schools in Baghdad.52 Lord Ampthill concludes that medieval and modern Europe owes its system of medicine directly to the Arabs, and through them to India.53 Probably this noblest and most uncertain of the sciences had an approximately equal antiquity, and developed in contemporary contact and mutual influence, in Sumeria, Egypt and India.

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