Do Indians have a scientific temper? Was there ever any tradition of science in India? Or has our scientific history been colonised to suit the Western narrative?
Science is based on experiment. But who invented the experimental method? Most Western histories attribute it to Francis Bacon in the 17th century. Bacon occupied many high positions in Britain but none of them involved any scientific activities, and Bacon performed no memorable scientific experiment.
However, 2,000 years before Bacon, a little-known Indian man called Payasi did perform a series of memorable scientific experiments. We learn this from an impeccable source: the Payasi sutta of the Digha Nikaya, or the Long Discourses (of the Buddha)¹. The sutta recounts a dialogue between King Payasi, a sceptic, and Kumar Kassapa, a young Buddhist monk. As Kassapa was passing through Payasi’s kingdom, Payasi sent word requesting him to tarry a while. Payasi doubted the belief in rewards and punishments in an after-life. He wanted to debate these issues with Kassapa, who agreed.
Payasi recounted a comprehensive series of experiments he had performed to test the theory of an afterlife. Payasi knew many people who had lived bad lives – killing, stealing, lying – and approached them on their deathbed with a proposition. If, after death, they went to a place full of woe (hell), then they should come and tell him, or send a message. They agreed, but none of the dead ever returned. Payasi repeated the experiment with ‘good’ people, with the same result, the dead never returned. Payasi went on to wonder, why these good men for whom the rewards of heaven await, did not kill themselves right away. In contrast, Francis Bacon, or his contemporaries, never once dared raise such empirical questions about church beliefs in heaven and hell.
Payasi went on to perform other experiments, with felons on death row. “Weigh this man, strangle him with a bow-string and then weigh him again”. But he found that the body weight does not diminish after death when “the soul had left the body”. So, at any rate, the soul had no weight. “Put this man in a pot, seal it, and heat the pot till he is dead, then make a hole in the pot and watch closely whether you can see his soul escaping”. Again, a negative result: the soul could not be seen. Payasi concluded that there was no soul and no after-life.
One may object, as I have done in my book Eleven Pictures of Time², that Payasi designed the wrong experiments, which refuted only a popular-level notion of the soul. But the immediate question is about the origin of the experimental method.
Clear proof of the experimental method is found in India, from 2,000 years before Bacon, but never acknowledged by the votaries of scientific temper, who ignore the evidence, and just peddle the myth of the Western origin of science.
As a legal figure, Francis Bacon was directly involved in the horrendous ‘witch trials’. These involved brutally punishing innocent women falsely accused of being ‘witches’. The legal method of proof Bacon used was to torture these women to extract a confession. The ghastly instruments of torture are found across various museums in Europe— such as the ‘choke pear’, an instrument inserted into a bodily orifice, and then expanded relentlessly to cause maximum pain. Bacon endorsed this unsound method of extracting confessions under torture as a valid method of proof in science, although today it is not even a valid method in law³. Naturally, many feminists⁴ rightly accuse Francis Bacon of proposing an unethical and sexist model of science.
The experimental method uses empirical proof, or proof based on the evidence of the senses. That this was a very deep-rooted understanding in ancient India is clear from the following fact. All systems of Indian philosophy – Nyaya-Vaisesika, Sankhya-Yoga, Advait Vedant, Buddhism, Jainism, Lokayata – accept without any exception that pratyaksh pramana or empirical proof, as the first means of proof. Therefore, the use of the empirical method in India goes way back into the hoary past.
In the Mahabharata, we find the story of Nala and Damayanti. Damayanti announces her intention to remarry by choosing a husband (swayamvara). As Nala and Rituparna (the king of Ayodhya) are rushing from Ayodhya to Vidarbha to participate, they stop near a Vibhitaka tree⁵—the five-faced fruits of which were used in the ancient Indian game of dice. Rituparna shows off his knowledge of statistics by saying: “The number of fruits in the two branches of the tree is 2095, count them if you like.” Nala says he will do exactly that – count them by the empirical method of physically cutting down the tree. Anxious not be delayed, Rituparna dissuades Nala by offering to explain how it was done using sampling and probability theory, also used in the game of dice⁶.
Mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta, a 1,000 years after Payasi, claimed his astronomical theory was better than Aryabhata’s, since it better-fitted observations. Another astronomer Parameshvara diligently observed the night sky for 50 years and his observations helped in Nilakantha’s superb astronomical model in the 16th century. This model was stolen from Cochin by Jesuits, and passed on to Tycho Brahe, after whom it is falsely named today.
In India, there were differences in non-empirical means of proof. For example, the heterodox philosophies like Buddhism, Jainism and Lokayata rejected shabda pramana or ‘reliable testimony’ as a valid means of proof. The Buddhist objection was simple: the reliability of the testimony must be either empirically manifest (pratyaksh) or it must be inferred.
In contrast, for centuries, blind belief in the gospel truth remained the sole Western method of proof. Anyone who dared differ was tortured or killed. Hence, for over 1,000 years, no Westerner objected in the manner of the Buddhists or the Lokayata. Bacon laughably said, “The word of God [Bible] …[is] the surest medicine against superstition”⁷. Copernicus, in the preface to his supposedly revolutionary book, which merely translated the work of Ibn Shatir from Greek to Latin, claimed the endorsement of a former Pope and two cardinals⁸. Newton understood the gospel was the word of the priest, not God, and secretly abused the church for corrupting the Bible, and spent a lifetime trying to recover the ‘original’ gospel.
Actions speak louder than professed intentions, as Jains have long told us. Bacon was self-admittedly financially corrupt, hence lacked the courage to challenge authority. Today, too, science equals trust in authority: most colonially educated people do not understand science, or test it empirically, they merely believe it—provided it comes from the ‘right’ authoritative sources.
This is an edited extract from a forthcoming booklet on ‘Scientific temper in ancient and modern India’.
The author is an Honorary Professor at the Indian Institute of Education, and a Tagore
Fellow-Designate at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. He is currently campaigning
for the decolonisation of math, science, and its pedagogy.