Science & Medicine
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Outdoor yoga class in Karnal, in the state of Haryana
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India's history is characterized by extensive scientific contributions and a rich philosophical tradition that integrates science and religion. Archaeological evidence indicates the Indus Valley Civilization used a highly accurate system of weights and measures and engineered urban centers with sophisticated infrastructures. Astronomy and mathematics developed out of Vedic rituals performed at fixed times of the year using altars of various geometric configurations. India is largely credited with inventing the idea of zero and for developing place notation (ones, tens, hundreds, etc.), the decimal system, and the numeral system used today.
Already established by the early 5th century BCE, universities at Taxila and Nalanda taught a scientific curriculum that included linguistics, arts and crafts, medicine, logic, and spirituality. People in India continue to practice two ancient systems developed over 2,000 years ago to maintain health: Ayurvedic medicine, described by the physician Charaka in India's oldest medical text, and yoga.
Astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and religion were closely linked in ancient India. Astronomy developed out of the need to determine solstices, equinoxes, and phases of the moon for Vedic rituals. Eighteen early astronomical texts or siddhantas, of which only the Surya-Siddhantha, written around 400 BCE, survives, discuss topics including lunar and solar eclipses, astronomical instruments, and the phases of the moon. The Vedanga Jyotisha composed by the astronomer Lagadha about 500 BCE outlines a calendar based on a five-year cycle or yuga with 62 lunar months and 1,830 days. India's earliest calendar, the Saptarshi calendar is broken into 2,700-year cycles and a version counting back to 3076 BCE is still in use in parts of India today.
Astronomy flourished under the Gupta Empire (c. 320-550 CE) during which time Ujjain in central India emerged as a center for astronomical and mathematical research. In 499 CE, Aryabhata, an Indian astronomer and mathematician who was also head of the university at Nalanda in Magadha (an ancient region located in what is now Bihar), composed the Aryabhatiya, a significant treatise about mathematics and astronomy written in Sanskrit. Aryabhata described a spherical Earth that rotates on its own axis and the orbits of planets in relation to the sun. He dated the universe to approximately 4,320,000 years and calculated the length of the solar year. India's first space satellite, launched in 1975, was named Aryabhata in his honor.
Ancient and medieval mathematics in India contributed new knowledge to geometry, mathematical logic, algebra, and trigonometry, including the base-10 decimal system and numerals, concepts that form the foundation of mathematics today. A decimal ruler made of shell and an ivory scale are among the earliest archaeological evidence of the Indus Valley Civilization's system of accurate weights and measures. That civilization's well-planned urban centers featured public baths with water-supply systems and suggest sophisticated knowledge of geometry.
Ancient religious texts written perhaps around 800-500 BCE, the Sulbasutras, described the construction of Vedic altars using calculations similar to the Pythagorean theorem but apparently before Pythagoras. The grammarian Panini, who rigorously systematized the science of linguistics through rules describing Sanskrit grammar, may have influenced mathematical notation as well.
Under the Gupta Empire (c. 320-550 CE), arts and science flourished and Ujjain's observatory in central India became a center for astronomical and mathematical research. In 499, at the age of 23, the Indian astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata wrote the Aryabhatiya, a Sanskrit treatise in verse that covers astronomy, trigonometry, arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry. Aryabhata calculated pi (π) to 3.1416, discussed square and cube roots, and developed the sine trigonometric function. The 12th century mathematician and astronomer Bhaskara, head of the Ujjain observatory, built on the work of Aryabhata. He used letters to represent unknowns, developed new methods for solving quadratic equations, and refined approximations of pi (π).
These advances in mathematics would spread to other civilizations and the Muslim world through invasions in later centuries. Between the 13th and 16th centuries CE, Kerala was another great Indian center of mathematics two centuries before Calculus was understood in Europe.
An ancient traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda ("the science of life"), originated in India approximately 3000 years ago and may have developed out of Vedic medicine. According to Indian belief, the original Ayurveda text was revealed by the god Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, and was written between 1400 and 1200 BCE. Three primary authors, Charaka, Susruta, and Vagbhata, are credited with writing the classical Sanskrit texts, Susruta Samhita, Charaka Samhita, and Astangahrdaya Samhita. Together, the texts are known as the Brddhatrayee, or ancient triad. The Charaka Samhita, finalized in the 1st century BCE, focuses on general medicine while the Sushruta Samhita, finalized in the 7th century CE, discusses surgery, including amputation, caesarean section, and cataract surgery. The texts describe hundreds of different drugs derived from plants, animals, and minerals that Ayurvedic physicians used in treatment. General topics, including medical ethics, qualities of a good physician, education of medical students, and how environment affects health are also covered.
Ayurvedic medicine focuses on maintaining health through good living and the proper balance of three elements (doshas)—spirit, phlegm, and bile—that are also associated with the three Hindu gods, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Each individual has a unique constitution, or prakriti, a combination of physical and psychological characteristics. In Ayurvedic physiology, the body is composed of seven different tissues and five elements—earth, water, fire, wind, and empty space—that hold the life force of the body, prana. Disease is considered an imbalance of doshas, and important to proper diagnosis are the 107 significant points, or marmas, that correspond with the body's critical vessels, nerves, muscles, and organs. Influenced by yoga practices, Ayurveda emphasizes maintaining health through proper lifestyle including diet, meditation, and exercise. Today, nearly 80% of India's population uses Ayurvedic medicine in some form, and the system is also practiced in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan.
An authority in Ayurvedic medicine, Charaka is credited with writing Charaka Samhita, India's oldest surviving medical text, which some argue was composed between 1000 and 500 BCE and others suggest 2nd century CE. Little information about Charaka's life is certain, and authorities question whether he was a living person or whether charaka was a term used to describe wandering physicians. Some scholars date the period in which he lived to as early as 800 or as late as 100 BCE. One tradition is that he served as a court physician for the Kushan king Kanishka (ruled c. 120-150), saving the king's wife during a difficult childbirth.
The Charaka Samhita, also called The Handbook of the Physician, is a revision of an earlier samhita written by Agnivesha, a disciple of the medical sage Punarvasu Atreya. Charaka emphasized Ayurveda as a system of preventative and curative health care. The handbook outlines the eight branches of Ayurveda for ensuring successful treatment: general medicine, pathology, diagnostics, physiology and anatomy, prognosis, therapeutics, and pharmaceutics. Charaka also described hundreds of drugs derived from plant materials that were used to treat disease. The Charaka Samhita is silent on the subject of surgery, which is addressed in the Susruta Samhita, another of the three classical Sanskrit texts on Ayurvedic medicine. All subsequent medical literature in India is based on this ancient triad of texts.
Yoga, from the Sanskrit for "yoke", is one of the earliest philosophical systems in the world, estimated at between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, and teaches the union of body, mind, and spirit. Seals from the Indus Valley Civilization dating to the 3rd millennium BCE depict what appear to be yogic poses.
The Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, and Mahabharata are among the texts that describe yoga's teachings, which were codified at about 150 BCE in the Yoga Sutra written by Patanjali. The Yoga Sutra outlines a system of eight limbs or a framework for yoga practice: moral restraint (yarna), discipline (niyarna), posture (asana), breath control (pranayarna), sense withdrawal (pratayahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption (samadhi). Patanjali focuses primarily on jnana yoga, or release through knowledge achieved through a life of asceticism.
Two other forms of yoga include karma yoga, the path of selfless action, and bhakti yoga, the path of devotion, namely to the Hindu god Krishna. Hatha yoga, which developed in the 11th century, teaches transformation through physical purification and focuses on chakras—energy centers within the body. Yoga today is used as a method of physical and spiritual discipline across the world.
- Why do you think yoga has become so popular outside of India?
- What aspects of Ayurvedic medicine are valued by many people in the United States?
- Why were India's advancements in mathematics important? What aspects of math taught today in school originated in India?