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Do Indians have a scientific temper? Ancient texts reveal we did, way before the West

While the West considers Francis Bacon to have invented the experimental method, Indian texts show that we have always had a scientific bent of mind.

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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.   

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

¹ दीघनिकाय, Hindi trans. Rahul Sankrityayan, Parammitra Prakashan, Delhi 2002. See also, T. W. Rhys-Davids, trans., Dialogues of the Buddha, vol. 2, London, 1910, pp. 346–74. Reprinted by the Pali Text Society, Sacred Books of the Buddhists, vol. 2, ed. F. Max Muller, Routledge and Keagan Paul, London, 1977. Reproduced in Cârvâka/Lokâyata: An Anthology of Source Materials and some Recent Studies, ed. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and Mrinal Kanti Gangopadhyaya, ICPR, New Delhi, 1990, pp. 8–31.
²C. K. Raju, The Eleven Pictures of Time: the physics, philosophy and politics of time beliefs, Sage, 2003.
³The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. J. Spedding et al, vol 4, Translations, Longman, London, 1858, p. 296. Bacon expressed the opinion that the study of witchcraft, sorcery etc. should not be excluded from science “For it is not yet known in what cases, and how far, effects attributed to superstition participate of natural causes”. Therefore, “(if they be diligently unravelled) a useful light may be gained not only for the true judgment of the offences of persons charged with such practices [witches] but likewise for the further disclosing of the secrets of nature.” He immediately added, ominously, “Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and comers, when the inquisition of truth is bis sole object”.
⁴Sandra Harding, The science question in feminism, Cornell University Press, 1986. Carolyn Merchant, The death of nature, HarperCollins, 1990.
Mahabharata, Van Parva, 72, trans. K. M. Ganguly, 1883–1896, Book 3, pp. 150-51.
⁶C. K. Raju, “Probability in Ancient India”, Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, vol 7, Philosophy of Statistics, ed. Prasanta S. Bandyopadhyay and Malcolm R. Forster. General Editors: Dov M. Gabbay, Paul Thagard and John Woods. Elsevier, 2011, pp. 1175–1196.
⁷In Novum Organum, Bacon, cited above, p. 89.
⁸For more details on why Copernicus, a Christian priest, was so frightened of the Inquisition even on his death bed, and for references to how he merely translated into Latin the Greek translation of Ibn Shatir’s Syriac work available in the Vatican library, see C. K. Raju, Is Science Western in Origin?, Multiversity, Penang, 2009.

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  1. What an article, mixing fiction with real crime. If human civilization services a few hundred years more, people like Mr. Raju will be analysing tge lives of Marvel heroes!!!

  2. An excellent article. The fact is that present Hinduism didn’t evolve solely from Vedic philosophy. Lokayata was a very popular non-Vedic branch of philosophy which adhered to Materialism and finds mention in Chanakya’s Arthashastra. Strangely it’s main proponent and founder was known as Brihaspati- not the guru of the Devas. Readers are advised to read a famous book “Lokayata- a study in ancient Indian Materialism “ by Debiprasad Chtopadhyaya- a Marxist thinker and writer.

  3. Relying on Shashi Tharoor’s book “An Era of Darkness” I will summarise this.
    1. In 1730 Aurangzeb had an income of 530 mill $. This is net of taxes less expenses, capital and revenue.
    2. In 1750 with British consolidation of hold over India, our GDP was 25% of global.
    3. The Brits did little expense on school education, higher education, institution of research, health, and infrastructure. They destroyed our commerce by excessive duties and discrimination. Our handmade textiles were taxed, but Brit textiles from our cotton were not, our steel was taxed, but not the import.
    4. At 25% of global GDP, why couldn’t we buy the new technology? The Brits didn’t allow.
    5. Our agriculture, was overtaxed, under bought to transfer funds to Britain.
    6. The dark ages for India were under Brit rule 1750 to 1947, when our share of global GDP shrunk from 25% to 3.
    7. Now you can laugh, cause in 47 Brit share had risen to near 8%, India at 3%, ints near reversed in 2019 😂😂😂

  4. We might have had scientific temperament in history, even if you were the first one to have scientific temperament. it doesn’t make a difference today because we are completely and utterly unscientific. Today we are far more unscientific than we were 5 years ago.

  5. In ancient India there was always scope and encouragement for debates and discourses. Lot of proof regarding this is available now also. Many scientific discoveries had happened in India, we can relate with Ayurveda and Yoga. These discoveries stand strong in the modern sceintific tests also. The medical science even ratified it again and again. These subtle discoveries can’t be just a stroke of luck to find, these are continuing efforts and toiling through centuries with scientific approach.
    As a matter, you should believe in guru, it was never blind Faith. If you study there are lot of evidences suggesting -how you should identify a true guru and to be cautious about hypocrites(dhongis). It was belief that is necessary for any learning to take place, but once you find a true guru.

  6. Once again, using the analogy of manufacturing…imagine 100 years from now when everything in America is ‘Made in China’ and someone questions “did manufacturing ever happen in America?” If there are written records, the question will be easily answered. If no records are there (though unlikely), skeptics would raise doubts. Scientific temper on a societal and institution levels only emerged after renaissance in Europe, and grew when systematic investment was made to science by governments, otherwise science was always done on an individual level. Science people were mavericks in most societies unless some lucky ones got attention from their head of the state. This same logic could be applicable to India; the lack of written records and lack of state investment into scientific endeavour may have been responsible for lack of institutional approach to science. Therefore, to say that scientific temper didn’t exist in India would be wrong.

  7. I wouldn’t like to even comment on this balderdash… The Print should get a life or announce that it has found Modi wave…

    And if – a cosmos sized if -scientific thinking was there amongst ancient Indians are their descendants idiots who couldnt build upon…

    • How can you say this?
      It’s because of foreign attacks India suffered the demolition , lakhs of similar books are destroyed or fired up by invaders. Same fate was for Indians.

  8. Actually India’s scientific temper was destroyed by Nehru who foisted Pseudo-Science by misusing his power and status as Prime Minister. Nehru ki dushtata anant hai.

  9. If the above mentioned nonsense is scientific temper and empirical method then we are the most advanced and most scientific tempered civilization on earth, wonder where it all went, might be because of the Mughals and british we lost all this amazing wealth and now trying to catch up. We should go back to all this ancient wealth and beat out the west with our antique wisdom and guidance back to our langotti days. We will be the greatest nation soon.

  10. I do not know how the author got in this conclusion. Scientific thought is completely against the Indian tradition and culture which is always centred around a non materialistic and mysterious world. What is recommended in ancient Indian text is to follow some authority like a guru etc., and do not question. The materialistic words which is the subject matter of modern science is considered ‘maya’ or ‘illusion’.

  11. Correction on my comment: I meant Carl Sagan and not Issac Asimov. For instance, Carl Sagan says “The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang.” There are similar statements made by other Western science scholars in their books.

  12. Some of the ignorant skeptics (first two comments) will produce flimsy arguments without giving reference to any literature. The issue being discussed here are (1) of using experiment and observation as source of evidence to prove or reject hypothesis, just like many Western scientists have been doing from Galileo onwards; (2) using thought experiments to arrive at a theory or estimate of reality, just like Einstein, Bohr and many theoretical physicists did and still do.

    Please refer to books by Isaac Asimov and many more that refer to theoretical propositions offered in Ancient India. The question here is not whether technology resulted from experimentation and how accurate the figures were, but whether scientific temperament existed. The problem with Aryan and Dravidian civilisations has always been keeping proper written records and that gives rise to these hollow arguments that ancient India was steeped in pseudoscience.

  13. You guys will be surprised to see articles on medicinal uses of cows urine. Go to Google Scholar, And type cow urine . It has been proven to be antimicrobial. We have named it as mythology, because there are incoherent bizzare things. Science is for better life, if we feel that ‘ inventions’ have been outside this country, then they wouldn’t colonise this place!!

  14. 999 out of 1000 things we use in our daily life has been invented or discovered outside India. Is the time not ripe for us to stop celebrating pseudoscience and put our energies into building a scientific temperament among our youth?

  15. I thought the print is a trustworthy online news portal. I had my suspicion for a few weeks now… after reading some of your articles. But now it is confirmed. CK Raju is a notorious proponent of pseudoscience and a self proclaimed polymath who propagates nationalistic pseudoscience with zero proof. Now that the print has given a platform for people like him… I see where this news portal is going. Bye bye print!

    • Can you please point out one specific instance of pseudoscience in this article? All of the claims made in this article are backed up by citations to physical documented evidence.

    • Pseudoscience! there are six main pramanas ( ways of knowing) in hindu philosophy,
      Anumana ( inference)
      Arthapatti ( postulation)
      Prataskshya ( empirical knowledge)
      Sabda ( testimony)
      Anupalabadhi ( negative proof)
      Upamana ( analogy / comparison)

      Are these all pseudoscience, they is well documented evidence of these in ancient texts . Does scientific temper not involve using these? May be you should use some evidence for your statement rather than making baseless claims.

      • Thanks for this wonderful insight. Will surely benefit the ignorants amongst us. It certainly adds to my knowledge.

      • I believe stories of mahabharata which is accepted as mythology should stay away from a writeup about scientific temper.

  16. Interestingly mythology has been quoted in an article that should be discussing scientific temper. Very interesting and amusing. Pardon me but i see a classic case of incoherence.

    • Can you please point out as to what exactly is this ‘mythology’ you are referring to? Every claim made in this article is based on substantial, documented evidence. Point out one instance of any claim being drawn from mythology, or else you will have to admit that you are a liar.

      • Mahabharata is a mythology and i believe it should stay away from all blog thats about scientific temper.

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