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Physical Sciences in Ancient India

The ancient civilisation in the world had studied nature & natural phenomena/events were not regarded as separate entities (Physical Sciences) but were a part of study of nature and natural phenomena.

Physical Sciences in Ancient India

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  30 Sep 2022 4:02 AM GMT

Dr Mukul Chandra Bora

(The writer is Director, Dibrugarh University Institute of Engineering & Technology. He can be reached at

The ancient civilisation in the world had studied nature and natural phenomena/events were not regarded as separate entities (Physical Sciences) but were a part of study of nature and natural phenomena. There were few examples of conscious attempts to study the theory of science independently of the practical innovations and technologies that required some application of scientific principles. In almost all the cases of technological discoveries, they have taken place without any knowledge of the underlying scientific principles but through the process of hit and miss method as well as by experience.

India was a place of knowledge and wisdom and the earliest applications of chemistry or chemical sciences were visible and found its application in medicine, metallurgy, construction of temples (manufacture of cement and paints) and in textile production and dyeing. But in the process of understanding chemical processes, there also emerged an associated interest and it was attempted to describe the basic elements of matter – what they were composed of, and how they interacted with each other to produce new materials. Natural events were also studied in the context of tides, rainfall, the sun, the moon and stellar formations, changes in season, weather patterns and agriculture. It is worth mentioning that the Vedic literature mentions the condensation of water vapour from seas and oceans due to evaporation caused by the sun's heat and the subsequent formation of clouds and rain.

Philosophy and Physical Science:

Although it is difficult to say that which precedes - theory or practice - but there is a dialectical relationship between both and the negligence of either leads to the death of science. Religious beliefs, particularly religious taboos and irrational indoctrination towards mystical or magical phenomena, or adherence to false superstitions, can often pose a serious threat to the advancement of science and hence play an important role in whether the why and the how of physical causes can be safely and usefully explored. In contrast to the other parts of the world, ancient India did not suffer from the religious opposition to science but it suffers from the proliferation of rituals and the progress of science in India was inextricably related to challenges faced from the domination of the priests, and resistance to the proliferation of rituals and sacrifices.

In the earliest scientific texts of India such as the Vaisheshikas (600 BC or earlier), and the Philosophical Development from Upanishadic Theism to Scientific Realism, fundamental attempts were made in recording the physical properties of different types of plants and natural substances. The evidence from Vedic texts shows that there was an attempt to summarize and classify the observations made about natural phenomena and was followed by intuitive formulations and approximate theories about the composition of matter and physical behaviour followed.

Thus, although the earliest applications of physics and chemistry in ancient India took place, but it describes without involving much theoretical knowledge or insight into these branches of science, there were elements of basic scientific investigation and scientific documentation in these early rational treatises. But the knowledge owned by ancient Indian sages were nevertheless very crucial to humanity to reach its present stage of knowledge in the fields of physics, chemistry, botany, biology and other physical sciences.

Particle Physics:

Although particle physics is assumed to be one of the most advanced and most complicated branches of modern physics, the earliest atomic theories are at least 2,500 years old and every rational school of philosophy (whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain - see Philosophical Development from Upanishadic Theism to Scientific Realism) had contributed on the nature of elementary particles and almost all the schools of thought has promoted the idea that matter was composed of atoms that were indivisible and indestructible. This theory was later further elaborated on this notion by positing that atoms could not only combine in pairs (dyads) but also in threes (triads) – and that the juxtaposition of dyads and triads determined the different physical properties of substances seen in nature. The Jains School of thought also postulated that the combinations of atoms required specific properties in the combining atoms, and also a separate "catalyst" atom and this is how the earliest atomic theories of Indian origin have converted into a molecular theory of matter which is now in use. Although many details of these theories are no longer stand the test of scientific validity, but these can be regarded as the foundations of modern Atomic Theory.

The development of the Jain molecular theory of ancient India appears to parallel practical developments in other fields such as medicine or metallurgy, where the vital role of catalysts had been observed and carefully documented. Atomic/molecular theories were also utilized in the explanations of chemical changes caused by heat. Prasastapada proposed that the Taijasa (heat) factor affected molecular groupings (vyuhas), thus causing chemical changes. Two competing theories attempted to provide a more detailed explanation of the process (as applied to the baking/colouring of a clay pot through firing): the Pilupakavada theory, as proposed by the Vaisesikas held that the application of heat (through fire, for instance) reduced the molecules of the earthen pot into atoms; and the continued application of heat caused the atoms to regroup creating new molecules and a different colour. The Pitharapakavada theory offered by the Nyayikas (of the Nyaya school) disagreed, suggesting that the molecular changes/transformations took place without a breakdown of the original molecules into basic atoms, arguing that if that happened, there would also have to be a disintegration of the pot itself, which remained intact, but only changed colour. The understanding of kinetic energy appears in the texts of Prasastapada and the Nyaya-Vaisesikas who believed that all atoms were in a state of constant activity. The concept of Parispanda was propounded to describe such molecular/atomic motion, whether it be whirling, circling, or harmonic.

Optics and Sound:

The Indian Philosophers of ancient India also attempted to provide theories on the nature of light and sound and eye was assumed to be a source of light and this error wasn't corrected until the 1st Century AD when Susruta posited that it was light arriving from an external source at the retina that illuminated the world around us. (This was reiterated by Aryabhatta in the 5th Century). In other respects, the earlier philosophers were more on the mark, with Cakrapani suggesting that both sound and light travelled in waves, but that light travelled at a much higher speed. Others like the Mimamsakas imagined light to comprise of minute particles (now understood to be photons) in constant motion and spreading through radiation and diffusion from the original source.

The wave character of sound was elaborated on by Prastapada who hypothesized that sound was borne by air in increasing circles, similar to the movement of ripples in water. Sound was understood to have its own reflection - pratidhvani (echo). Musical pitches (sruti) were seen as caused by the magnitude and frequency of vibrations. A svara (tone) was believed to consist of a sruti (fundamental tone) and some anuranana (partial tones or harmonics). Musical theory was elaborated on the basis of concepts such as jativyaktyorivat adatamyam (genus and species of svara), parinama (change of fundamental frequency), vyanjana (manifestation of overtones), vivartana (reflection of sound), and karyakaranabhava (cause and effect of the sound).

Astronomy and Physics:

Ancient Indian Philosophers had outstanding knowledge of Mathematics and Astronomy and hence did the study of Physics. The great Indian Mathematician, Aryabhatta (5th-6th Century) made pioneering discoveries in the realm of planetary motion and has led to the advances in the definition of space and time measuring units and better comprehension of concepts such as gravitation, motion and velocity. The examples of this work were reflected in the work of Yativrasabha and Tiloyapannatti (6th Century), which gives various units for measuring distances and time and also describes a system of infinite time measures. More significantly, Vacaspati Misra (circa AD 840) anticipated solid (co-ordinate) geometry eight centuries before Descartes (AD 1644). In his Nyayasuchi-Nibandha, he states that the position of a particle in space could be calculated by assuming it relative to another and measuring along three (imaginary) axes.

The Laws of Motion:

The earliest attempts at classifying different types of motion were made by the Vaisesikas, but Prasastapada took the study of the subject much further in the 7th Century AD, and it appears from some of his definitions that at least some of the concepts he enunciated must have emerged from a study of planetary motion. In addition to linear motion, Prasastapada also described curvilinear motion (gamana), rotary motion (bhramana) and vibratory motion. He also differentiated motion that was initiated by some external action from that which took place as a result of gravity or fluidity. Prasastapada also noted that at any given instance, a particle was capable of only a single motion (although a body such as a blowing leaf composed of multiple particles may experience a more complex pattern of motion due to different particles moving in different ways) – an important concept that was to facilitate in later quantifications of the laws of motion. In the 10th Century Sridhara reiterated what had been observed by Prasastapada, and expanded on what he had documented. Bhaskaracharya (12th Century), in his Siddhanta Siromani and Ganitadhyaya, took a crucial first step in quantification, and measured average velocity as v=s/t (where v is the average velocity, s is distance covered, and t is time). It is worth mentioning that Indians failed to follow up with further attempts at quantification and conceptual elaboration and several types of motion had earlier assigned to unseen causes. There were no subsequent attempts to solve these mysteries, nor was there the realization that the invisible cause behind various types of motion could be conceptually generalized and formally characterized and expressed in an abstract way, through a mathematical formula was done by Newton a few centuries later.

Experimentation versus Intuition:

In fact, the next major step in the study of motion was to take place in England, when the ground for scientific investigation was prepared by the likes of Roger Bacon (13th Century) who described the great obstacles to learning as regard for authority, force of habit, theological prejudice and false concept of knowledge. A century later, Merton scholars at Oxford developed the concept of accelerated motion (an important precursor to the understanding that force=mass*acceleration) and took rudimentary but important steps in the measurement and quantification of heat in a rod. One of the hallmarks of British (and European) science thereafter was the fusion of theory and practice, unlike the generally intuitive approach followed by Indian scientists when investigating fields other than astronomy.

The Social Milieu

Yet, unlike in astronomy, where many Indian scientists got very intensely involved, and were driven to work towards a considerable degree of accuracy, no such compulsions appeared to guide Indian scientists in other fields. Whereas Indian astronomers were compelled to develop useful mathematical formulae and explore the mysteries of the universe in greater depth - in other fields of scientific investigation, Indian scientists seemed to remain content with intuitive and general observations, tolerating a far greater degree of vagueness and imprecision. The answer to this apparent inconsistency may lie in the social milieu. The study of astronomy was triggered partly by practical considerations such as the need for accurate monsoon prediction and rainfall mapping, but perhaps even more so, by the growing demand for "good" astrologers. The obsession with astrological charts - both amongst the royalty and mercantile classes - led to considerable state patronage of intellectuals who wished to pursue the study of astronomy. Patronage was also available for alchemists – for those attempting to discover the "elixir" of life. But support for modern scientific research as was beginning to take shape in 14th Century Oxford was generally lacking.

Although Raja Bhoja's Somarangana-Sutradhara (circa AD 1100) describes many useful mechanical inventions, and the use of levers and pulleys is described in numerous other Urdu, Persian and Arabic texts in India and the Middle East, Da Vinci's notes on mechanics, the study of levers of different kinds, cantilevers, pulleys and gears in combination, varied gadgetry, bridges, and studies of flight were of a truly pioneering nature, and exceeded in complexity and breadth any civil and mechanical engineering treatise that had preceded him.

And even though in his time, Da Vinci's works were not especially appreciated, Western Europe was in the midst of a monumental change in its attitude towards science and technology. A century later, the momentum towards the modern scientific era was to gather considerable pace, and eventually the European Renaissance created an environment where the ideas of Da Vinci and Francis Bacon (15-16th Century England - who stressed the importance of the experimental method in science) were able to blossom and flourish.

But at the same time in India, several factors posed as hindrances to the development of modern science. In comparison to Europe, India enjoyed a relatively milder climate, and the production of necessities was deemed sufficient to satisfy the population of the time. The courts - whether Mughal or regional - spent a good part of their rich treasuries on cultivating the fine arts and promoting the manufacture of luxury goods and decorative objects of exquisite beauty. Science and technology simply attracted little attention (except when it came to improving the tools of war).

The growing influence of religion - whether Quranic or Brahminical - also had its negative effect. While the Quran claimed that all the world's knowledge was already described in it, Brahminical orthodoxy created a sharp divide between the mental and the physical and thus prevented scientists from going beyond passive observation and intuition to practical experimentation, active theorizing and quantification. Whereas Akbar and Jehangir were not averse to science, and the latter took an active interest in books on botany and zoology, it appears from anecdotal accounts that Aurangzeb had a decidedly skeptical attitude towards the sciences. Although some patronage was available in the regional courts, (and outside the courts), alchemy, astrology, study of omens, numerology and other semi-rational and irrational traditions drew much more attention, and thus distracted from genuine scientific pursuits.

On the other hand, European scientists drew on the best works produced in the East - studying foreign documents with due diligence, often accepting little at face value - but instead verifying the results with apparatus and scientific measuring tools of their own creation. There was a time when such had also been the case in ancient India - but over time (due to both internal and external factors) – India's scientific spirit got eroded and thus Europe was not only able to catch up with the knowledge of India and the East, it was able to rapidly surpass it.

Since independence, Indian scientists have been provided the opportunity of narrowing the gap, and in some fields have done especially well. However, the quality of science education for the masses still needs considerable improvement and connection with the Philosophical thoughts of ancient Indian sages. On the one hand, the study of the physical sciences in India needs to be accompanied with practical demonstrations and more experimentation as is common practice in the West which was not there in our Indian Knowledge System as our ancestors never thought of exploitation of Nature. The conceptual elegance of some earlier formulations, and the facility to inform and educate through analogy is also something that can be learned from the Indian tradition. It may also be noted that in terms of pedagogy, the standard Western texts are not always as useful. Often, the teaching of physics and chemistry becomes too esoteric for the average student. There is excessive abstraction in most text books, and undue theoretical complexity is thrust upon relatively young students. In contrast, the Indian approach was with its stress on observation of natural phenomenon, and epistemological approach to understanding each field are much easier to grasp for beginners and intermediate students. It is to be mentioned here that the concept of Environment, Sustainable Development, Nature Inspired Design or live with nature were the core of Ancient Indian Knowledge and Wisdom. So, the formulation of the National Education Policy and its application in real sense with proper spirit will bring our glorious past and none can prevent us in becoming Vishwa Guru in terms of Knowledge and Wealth.


1.The Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus (Brajendranath Seal)

2. Concise History of Science in India (Bose, Sen, Subarayappa, Indian National Science Academy)

3. Studies in the History of Science in India (Anthology edited by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya)

4. Causation in Indian Philosophy (Mahesh Chandra Bhartiya, Vimal Prakashan, Ghaziabad)

Related Pages:

History of Mathematics in India

Technological discoveries and applications in India

Development of Philosophical Thought and Scientific Method in Ancient India

Philosophical Development from Upanishadic Theism to Scientific Realism.

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