On the Origins of Indian Science – Subhash C. Kak

Subhash Kak, Professor at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, is one of the world’s leading historians of science. He is known for his outstanding contributions towards decipherment of the Indus-Sarasvati script of the third millennium BC and the discovery of astronomical code in the design of the fire altars of the ancient world. He had also shown that Brahmi script of the Ashokan times is derived from the ancient Indus-Sarasvati script. This has corroborated the discoveries of archaeologists showing a continuity in Indian civilization that goes back to at least 7000 BC.

‘Veda’ means knowledge. Since we call our earliest period Vedic, this is suggestive of the importance of knowledge and science, as a means of acquiring that knowledge, to that period of Indian history. For quite some time scholars believed that this knowledge amounted to no more than speculations regarding the self; this is what we are still told in some schoolbook accounts. New insights in archaeology, astronomy, history of science and Vedic scholarship have shown that such a view is wrong. We now know that Vedic knowledge embraced physics, mathematics, astronomy, logic, cognition and other disciplines. We find that Vedic science is the earliest science that has come down to us. This has significant implications in our understanding of the history of ideas and the evolution of early civilizations.

The reconstructions of our earliest science are based not only on the Vedas but also on their appendices called the Vedangas. The six Vedangas deal with : kalpa, performance of ritual with its basis of geometry, mathematics and calendrics; shiksha, phonetics; chhandas, metrical structures; nirukta, etymology; vyakarana, grammar; and jyotisha, astronomy and other cyclical phenomena. Then there are naturalistic descriptions in the various Vedic books that tell us a lot about scientific ideas of those times.

Briefly, the Vedic texts present a tripartite and recursive world view. The universe is viewed as three regions of earth, space, and sky with the corresponding entities of Vishve Devah (all gods), Indra, and Agni. Counting separately the joining regions leads to a total of five categories where, as we see in Figure 1, water separates earth and fire, and air separates fire and ether.

In Vedic ritual the three regions are assigned different fire altars. Furthermore, the five categories are represented in terms of altars of five layers. The great altars were built of a thousand bricks to a variety of dimensions. The discovery of the details of the astronomical altar constructions code is a fascinating chapter in the history of astronomy.

In the Vedic world view, the processes in the sky, on earth, and within the mind are taken to be connected. The Vedic rishis were aware that all descriptions of the universe lead to logical paradox. The one category transcending all oppositions was termed brahman. Understanding the nature of consciousness was of paramount importance in this view but this did not mean that other sciences were ignored. Vedic ritual was a symbolic retelling of this world view.


Ether Sound Emotion
Sky Agni Air Touch Intellect
Space Indra

nl01102a.jpg (5608 bytes)

Fire Form Mind
Earth Vishve Devah Water Taste Prana
Earth Smell Body

To place Vedic science in context it is necessary to have a proper understanding of the chronology of the Vedic literature. There are astronomical references in the Vedas which recall events in the third or the fourth millennium B.C.E. and earlier. The recent discovery (e.g. Feuerstein 1995) that Sarasvati, the preeminent river of the Rigvedic times, went dry around 1900 B.C.E. due to tectonic upheavels implies that the Rigveda is to be dated prior to this epoch, perhaps prior to 2000 B.C.E. since the literature that immediately followed the Rigveda does not speak of any geological catastrophe. But we cannot be very precise about our estimates. There exist traditional accounts in the puranas that assign greater antiquity to the Rigveda : for example, the kaliyuga tradition speaks of 3100 B.C.E. and the Varahamihira tradition mentions 2400 B.C.E. According to Henri-Paul Francfort (1992) of the Indo-French team that surveyed this area, the Sarasvati river had ceased to be a perennial river by the third millennium B.C.E., this supports those who argue for the older dates. But in the absence of conclusive evidence, it is prudent to take the most conservative of these dates, namely 2000 B.C.E. as the latest period to be associated with the Rigveda.

The textbook accounts of the past century or so were based on the now disproven supposition that the Rigveda is to be dated to about 1500-1000 B.C.E. and, therefore, the question of the dates assigned to theBrahmanas, Sutras and other literature remains open. The detailed chronology of the literature that followed Rigveda has not yet been worked out. A chronology of this literature was attempted based solely on the internal astronomical evidence in the important book Ancient Indian Chronology by the historian of science P.C. Sengupta in 1947. Although Sengupta’s dates have the virtue of inner consistency, they have neither been examined carefully by other scholars nor checked against archaeological evidence.

This means that we can only speak in the most generalities regarding the chronology of the texts : assign Rigveda to the third millennium B.C.E. and earlier and the Brahmanas to the second millennium. This also implies that the archaeological finds of the Indus-Sarasvati period, which are coeval with Rigveda literature, can be used to cross-check textual evidence.

No comprehensive studies of ancient Indian science exist. The textbook accounts like the one to be found in Basham’s The Wonder that was India are hopelessly out of date. But there are some excellent surveys of selected material. The task of putting it all together into a comprehensive whole will be a major task for historians of science.

This essay presents an assortment of topics from ancient Indian science. We begin with an outline of the models used in the Vedic cognitive science; these models parallel those used in ancient Indian Physics. We also review mathematics, astronomy, grammar, logic and medicine.


Vedic Cognitive Science

The Rigveda speaks of cosmic order. It is assumed that there exist equivalences of various kinds between the outer and the inner worlds. It is these connections that make it possible for our minds to comprehend the universe. It is noteworthy that the analytical methods are used both in the examination of the outer world as well as the inner world. This allowed the Vedic rishis to place in sharp focus paradoxical aspects of analytical knowledge. Such paradoxes have become only too familiar to the contemporary scientists in all branches of inquiry (Kak 1986).

In the Vedic view, the complementary nature of the mind and the outer world, is of fundamental significance. Knowledge is classified in two ways : the lower or dual; and the higher or unified. What this means is that knowledge is superficially dual and paradoxical but at a deeper level it has a unity. The Vedic view claims that the material and the conscious are aspects of the same transcendental reality.

The idea of complementarity was at the basis of the systematization of Indian philosophic traditions as well, so that complementary approaches were paired together. We have the groups of : logic (nyaya) and physics (vaisheshika), cosmology (sankhya) and psychology (yoga), and language (mimamsa) and reality (vedanta). Although these philosophical schools were formalized in the post-Vedic age, we find an echo of these ideas in the Vedic texts.

In the Rigveda there is reference to the yoking of the horses to the chariot of Indra, Ashvins, or Agni; and we are told elsewhere that these gods represent the essential mind. The same metaphor of the chariot for a person is encountered in Katha Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita; this chariot is pulled in different directions by the horses, representing senses, which are yoked to it. The mind is the driver who holds the reins to these horses; but next to the mind sits the true observer, the self, who represents a universal unity. Without this self no coherent behaviour is possible.


The Five Levels

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the individual is represented in terms of five different sheaths or levels that enclose the individual’s self. These levels, shown in an ascending order, are :

The physical body (annamaya kosha); Energy sheath (pranamaya kosha); Mental sheath (manomaya kosha); Intellect sheath (vijnanamaya kosha); Emotion sheath (anandamaya kosha)

These sheaths are defined at increasingly finer levels. At the highest level, above the emotion sheath, is the self. It is significant that emotion is placed higher than the intellect. This is a recognition of the fact that eventually meaning is communicated by associations which are influenced by the emotional state.

The energy that underlies physical and mental processes is called prana. One may look at an individual in three different levels. At the lowest level is the physical body, at the next higher level is the energy systems at work, and at the next higher level are the thoughts. Since the three levels are interrelated the energy situation may be changed by inputs either at the physical level or at the mental level. When the energy state is agitated and restless, it is characterized by rajas; when it is dull and lethargic, it is characterized by tamas; the state of equilibrium and the balance is termed sattva.

The key notion is that each higher level represents characteristics that are emergent on the ground of the previous level. In this theory mind is an emergent entity, but this emergence requires the presence of the self.


The Structure of the Mind

The sankhya system takes the mind as consisting of five components : manas, ahankara, chitta, buddhi, and atman. Again these categories parallel those of Figure 1.

Manas is the lower mind which collects sense impressions. Its perceptions shift from moment to moment. This sensory-motor mind obtains its inputs from the senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell. Each of these senses may be taken to be governed by a separate agent.

Ahankara is the sense of I-ness that associates some perceptions to a subjective and personal experience.

Once sensory impressions have been related to I-ness by ahankara, their evaluation and resulting decisions are arrived at by buddhi, the intellect. Manas, ahankara, and buddhi are collectively called the internal instruments of the mind.

Next we come to chitta, which is the memory bank of the mind. These memories constitute the foundation on which the rest of the mind operates. But chitta is not merely a passive instrument. The organization of the new impressions throws up instinctual or primitive urges which create different emotional states.

This mental complex surrounds the innermost aspect of consciousness which is called atman, the self, brahman, or jiva. Atman is considered to be beyond a finite enumeration of categories.

All this amounts to a brilliant analysis of the individual. The traditions of yoga and tantra have been based on such analysis. No wonder, this model has continued to inspire people around the world to this day.


Mathematical and Physical Sciences

Here we review some new findings related to the early period of Indian science which show that the outer world was not ignored at the expense of the inner.


Geometry and Mathematics

Seidenberg, by examining the evidence in the Shatapatha Brahmana, showed that Indian geometry predates Greek geometry by centuries. Seidenberg argues that the birth of geometry and mathematics had a ritual origin. For example, the earth was represented by a circular altar and the heavens were represented by a square altar and the ritual consisted of converting the circle into a square of an identical area. There we see the beginnings of geometry!

In his famous paper on the origin of mathematics, Seidenberg (1978) concluded : "Old-Babylonia [1700 BC] got the theorem of Pythagoras from India or that both Old-Babylonia and India got it from a third source. Now the Sanskrit scholars do not give me a date so far back as 1700 B.C. Therefore I postulate a pre-Old-Babylonian (i.e., pre-1700 B.C.) source of the kind of geometric rituals we see preserved in theSulvasutras, or at least for the mathematics involved in these rituals." That was before archaeological finds disproved the earlier assumption of a break in Indian civilization in the second millennium B.C.E.; it was this assumption of the Sanskritists that led Seidenberg to postulate a third earlier source. Now with our new knowledge, Seidenberg’s conclusion of India being the source of the geometric and mathematical knowledge of the ancient world fits in with the new chronology of the texts.



Using hitherto neglected texts related to ritual and the Vedic indices, an astronomy of the third millennium B.C.E. has been discovered (Kak 1994a; 1995a,b). Here the altars symbolized different parts of the year. In one ritual, pebbles were placed around the altars for the earth, the atmosphere, and the sky. The number of these pebbles were 21, 78, and 261, respectively. These numbers add up to the 360 days of the year. There were other features related to the design of the altars which suggested that the ritualists were aware that the length of the year was between 365 and 366 days.

The organization of the Vedic books was also according to an astronomical code. To give just one simple example, the total number of verses in all the Vedas is 20,358 which equals 261 x 78, a product of the sky and atmosphere numbers! The Vedic ritual followed the seasons hence the importance of astronomy.

The second millennium text Vedanga Jyotisha went beyond the earlier calendrical astronomy to develop a theory for the mean motions of the sun and the moon. This marked the beginnings of the application of mathematics to the motions of the heavenly bodies.

The Vedic Planetary Model

Planetary Knowledge

The Vedic planetary model is given in Figure 2. The sun was taken to be midway in the skies. A considerable amount of Vedic mythology regarding the struggle between the demons and the gods is a metaphorical retelling of the motions of Venus and Mars (Frawley 1994).

The famous myth of Visnu’s three strides measuring the universe becomes intelligible when we note that early texts equate Vishnu and Mercury. The myth appears to celebrate the first measurement of the period of Mercury (Kak 1996a). Since these periods equal the number assigned in altar ritual to the heavens. Other arguments suggest that the Vedic people knew the periods of the five classical planets.



Cryptological analysis has revealed that the Brahmi script of the Mauryan times evolved out of the third millennium Sarasvati (Indus) script. The Sarasvati script was perhaps the first true alphabetic script. The worship of Sarasvati as the goddess of learning remembers the development of writing on the banks of the Sarasvati river. It also appears that the symbol for zero was derived from the fish sign that stood for "ten" in Brahmi and this occurred around 50 B.C.E.-50 C.E. (Kak 1994b).


Binary Numbers

Barend van Nooten (1993) has shown that binary numbers were known at the time of Pingala’s Chhandahshastra. Pingala, who lived around the early first century B.C.E., used binary numbers to classify Vedic meters. The knowledge of binary numbers indicates a deep understanding of arithmetic. A binary representation requires the use of only two symbols, rather than the ten required in the usual decimal representation, and it has now become the basis of information storage in terms of sequences of 0s and 1s in modern day computers.



Ernest McClain (1978) has described the tonal basis of early myth. McClain argues that the connections between music and myth are even deeper than astronomy and myth. The invariances at the basis of tones could very well have served as the ideal for the development of the earliest astronomy. The tonal invariances of music may have suggested the search of similar invariances in the heavenly phenomena.

The Samaveda, where the hymns were supposed to be sung, was compared to the sky. Apparently, this comparison was to emphasize the musical basis of astronomy. The Vedic hymns are according to a variety of meters; but what purpose, if any, lay behind a specific choice is unknown.



Panini’s grammar (6th century B.C.E. or earlier) provides 4,000 rules that describe the Sanskrit of his day completely. This grammar is acknowledged to be one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all times. The great variety of language mirrors, in many ways, the complexity of nature. What is remarkable is that Panini set out to describe the entire grammar in terms of a finite number of rules. Frits Staal (1988) has shown that the grammar of Panini represents a universal grammatical and computing system. From this perspective it anticipates the logical framework of modern computers (Kak 1987).



There is a close parallel between Indian and Greek medicine. For example, the idea of breath (prana in Sanskrit, and pneuma in Greek) is central to both. Jean Filliozat (1970) has argued that the idea of the correct association between the three elements of the wind, the gall, and the phlegm, which was described first by Plato in Greek medicine, appears to be derived from the earlier tridosha theory of Ayurveda. Filliozat suggests that the transmission occurred via the Persian empire.

These discoveries not only call for a revision of the textbook accounts of Indian science but also call for new research to assess the impact on other civilizations of these ideas.


Rhythms of Life

We have spoken before of how the Vedas speak of the connections between the external and the internal worlds. The hymns speak often of the stars and the planets. These are sometimes the luminaries in the sky, or those in the firmament of our inner landscapes or both.

To the question on how can the motions of an object, millions of miles away, have any influence on the life of a human being one can only say that the universe is interconnected. In this ecological perspective the physical planets do not influence the individual directly. Rather, the intricate clockwork of the universe runs on forces that are reflected in the periodicities of the astral bodies as also the cycles of behaviors of all terrestrial beings and plants.

It is not the gravitational pull of the planet that causes a certain response, but an internal clock governed by the genes. We know this because in some mutant organisms the internal clock works according to periods that have no apparent astronomical basis. So these cycles can be considered to be a manifestation of the motions of the body’s inner "planets." In the language of evolution theory one would argue that these periods get reflected in the genetic inheritance of the biological system as a result of the advantage over millions of years that they must have provided for survival.

The most fundamental rhythms are matched to the periods of the sun or the moon. It is reasonable to assume that with their emphasis on time bound rituals and the calendar, the ancient had discovered many of the biological periods. This would include the 24-hour-50-minute circadian rhythm, the connection of the menstrual cycle with the motions of the moon, the life cycle of various plants, and the semimonthly oestrus cycle of sheep, the three-week cycle of cattle and pigs, and the six-month cycle of dogs.

The moon (soma) is called the "Lord of speech" (vachaspati) in the Rigveda. It is also taken to awaken eager thoughts. Other references suggest that in the Rigvedic times the moon was taken to be connected with the mind.

This is stated most directly in the famous Purushasukta, the cosmic man hymn, of the Rigveda where it is stated that the mind is born of the moon and in Shatapatha Brahmana where we have : "the mind is the moon." Considering the fact that the relationships between the astronomical and the terrestrial were taken in terms of periodicities, doubtless, this slogan indicates that the mind is governed by the period of the moon.

Fire, having become speech, entered the mouth

Air, becoming scent, entered the nostrils

The sun, becoming sight, entered the eyes

The regions becoming hearing, entered the ears

The plants, becoming hairs, entered the skin

The moon, having become mind, entered the heart.

—Aitreya Aranyaka

This verse from the Upanishadic period speaks at many levels. At the literal level there is an association of the elements with various cognitive centres. At another level, the verse connects the time evolution of the external object to the cognitive centre.

Fire represents consciousness and this ebbs and flows with a daily rhythm. Air represents seasons so here the rhythm is longer. The sun and sight have a 24-hour cycle. The regions denote other motions in the skies, so hearing manifests cycles that are connected to the planets. The plants have daily and annual periods; the hairs of the body have an annual period. The mind has a period of 24 hours and 50 minutes like that of the moon.

What are the seats of these cycles? According to tantra the chakras of the body are the centres of the different elements as well as cognitive capacities and rhythms related to "internal planets." The knowledge of these rhythms appears to have led to astrology.



We have seen how the logical apparatus that was brought to bear on the outer world was applied to the analysis of the mind. But the question remains; How does inanimate matter come to have awareness? This metaphysical question was answered by postulating entities for smell, taste, form, touch, and sound as in Figure 1. In the sankhya system, a total of twenty-four such categories are assumed. These categories are supposed to emerge at the end of a long chain of evolution and they may be considered to be material. The breath of life into the instruments of sight, touch, hearing and so on is provided by the twenty-fifth category, which is purusha, the soul.

The recursive Vedic world-view requires that the universe itself go through cycles of creation and destruction. This view became a part of the astronomical framework and ultimately very long cycles of billions of years were assumed. The sankhya evolution takes the life forms to evolve into an increasingly complex system until the end of the cycle.

The categories of sankhya operate at the level of the individual as well. Life mirrors the entire creation cycle and cognition mirrors a life-history. Surprisingly similar are the modern slogans : ontogeny is phylogeny, and microgeny (the cognitive process) is a speeded-up ontogeny (Brown 1994).



We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in our understanding of Vedic science and cosmology. We now know that measurement astronomy is to be dated to at least the third millennium B.C.E. which is more than a thousand years earlier than was believed only a decade ago; and mathematics and geometry date to at least the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. Indian mythology is being interpreted in terms of its underlying astronomy or / and cognitive science. We find that many Indian dates are much earlier than the corresponding dates elsewhere. What does it all mean for our understanding of the Indian civilization and its interactions with Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Greece? Was Indian knowledge carried to the other nations or do we have a case here for independent discovery in different places?

Contemporary science has begun to examine Vedic theories on the nature of the "self" and see if they might be of value in the search for a science of consciousness (e.g. Kak 1996b). Man has mastered the outer world and Vedic science formed the basis for that enterprise; it is now possible that the exploration of the inner world, which is the heart of modern science, will also be along paths long heralded by Vedic rishis.



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— 1996b. Reflections in clouded mirrors : Selfhood in animals and machines. In Pribram, K.H. and J. King (eds.) Learning as Self-Organization. Mahwah, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum.

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