Scientific Literature in Sanskrit
There is a general impression that Indians in ancient times made progress in art, literature, philosophy etc but not in science. Recent evidence proves that in the fields of scientific and technical knowledge the contribution of ancient India was by no means negligible.
In the Rig Veda reference to the artificial thigh made of iron given to Visapala by the Asvins must be regarded as an astonishing feat of medical science and metallurgy. Even the iron pillar of Delhi 4th century a.d. which is 23 feet high and nine tons in weight and two other pillars found in Dhar and Mount Abu are no less striking. In the Rig Veda and Vajasaneyi Samhita there are references to mechanical devices or yantras. The Mahabharat and Ramayana also speak about them.
Modern scholars cannot find answers to how ancient Indians discovered them thus they tend to dismiss these discoveries compounded due to non-availability of ancient works. Nonetheless scientific literature in S is quite extensive and elaborate on a variety of subjects. I will take each subject briefly –
Alchemy - Man’s craving for gold is universal. In India alchemy appears to have been associated with the Tantrik religion but the ancient works dealing with it are now lost, only a trail of this tract survived in the forms of Kakacandesvari-mata Tantra and Svarna Tantra mentioned by Alberuni. The earliest available work is perhaps Rasa-ratnakara 7th or 8th century a.d. In the 14th century Madhava refers to past ancient masters such as Acharya Sarvajna and Ramesvara Bhattaraka amongst others.
Chemistry - Literary sources prove that the knowledge of chemistry existed in India at a very early period. Yet due to lack of evidence it is very difficult to say when chemistry was first recognized as a separate discipline in India.
The names of ancient masters are Patanjali, Vyadi, Vasudeva, Caraka, Susruta, and Harita amongst others. The earliest work Rasaratnakara ascribed to Nagarjuna belongs to the 8th century a.d. A modern chemist P C Ray in his History of Hindu Chemistry gives an account of some fifty works of chemistry e.g. Rasendra-cudamani by Somadeva 12 or the 13th century a.d., Rasa-kaumudi by Madhava 15th century amongst others.
Chemistry was seriously studied in Tibet and there was close contact between Tibet and Indian chemists. It is curious to note that though preparation of diverse mineral acids and various medicines by the use of metals are recorded in the works on chemistry and medical science, no work dealing with metallurgy has come down to us.
Medical science - On this subject there is a flourishing literature in S. It is divided into eight main branches – satya-tantra or major surgery, salakya-tantra or minor surgery, kaya-cikitsa or therapeutics, bhuta-vidya or demonology, kaumara-bhrtya or pediatrics, aganda-tantra or toxicology, rasayana or elixirs and vaji-karana or aphrodisiacs. Anatomy, embryology and hygiene were known from Vedic times. Various Gods like Siva are mentioned as ancient masters of medical science and various books written on medicine with them as curers.
The earliest extant work on medicine is the Charaka Samhita by Charaka in the 1st century a.d. It was translated into Persian / Arabic in the 8th century a.d. In elegant S prose interspersed with verse, the book deals with anatomy, embryology, dietetics, pathology and many other medical topics.
Another great name is Susruta. The Mahabharata speaks of him as the son of Visvamitra and his work was known in Cambodia and Arab countries in the 9/10th centuries a.d. The next great writer on medical subjects is Vagbhata whose work covers all the eight sections of Ayurveda. His work was translated into Tibetan.
Anatomy and physiology - Human anatomy is referred to in the Atharva-Veda and Satapatha Brahmana.
Pathology - The earliest work is Rug-viniscaya by Madhavakara 7th century, was translated into Arabic in the 8th century.
Pediatrics - well-known work is Kumara Tantra ascribed to Ravana.
The Science of the Pulse - The study of the pulse forms an important part of a diagnosis in Ayurveda. This science has been treated as a separate discipline in Nadi-vijnama by Kanada and a work Nadi-pariksa ascribed to Ravana.
Veterinary Science - The Puranas associate the names of Salihotra, Nakula and Palakapya with its ancient masters of its various branches. It is concerned with the treatment of elephants, horses and cattle.
Cosmetics and aromatics - An early work on collyrium, Anjana-nidana is attributed to Agnivesa. Navanitaka 2nd century a.d. gives a formula for hair dye, while Sarngadhara Paddhati preserves instructions for the preparation of cosmetics including hair-dye and scented oil.
The science of Gems - Among the many books are Ratna-sastra by Agastya, the Garuda Purana cites Vyadi as an authority. There was Ratna-pariksa by Buddhabhatta 6th century a.d. amongst many books on the subject.
Astronomy - Observation of heavenly bodies was closely associated with Vedic rituals. Vedanga Jyotisa indicates that considerable progress was made in this science. It is related to the Rig and Yajur Veda while there is a separate text named Atharvana Jyotisa related to the Atharva Veda.
The famous astrologer Aryabhatta 5th century a.d was the first to assert that the earth is a sphere and that it rotates round the sun. His works include Aryabhatiya, Dasagitika-Sutra with numerical notations and Aryastasata. The last work contains three sections namely maths, measurement of time and astronomy. In 550 a.d. another great name was Varahamhira. Brahmagupta 598 a.d. is another luminary in this field. The next great name is Bhaskaracarya 12th century a.d.
Mathematics - India’s achievements may briefly be summed up in the words of Macdonnel “The Indians invented the numerical figures all over the world. The influence, which the decimal system of reckoning dependant on those figures has had not only on maths but on the progress of civilization as general, can hardly be overestimated. During the 8th and 9th centuries the Indians became teachers to the Arabs in arithmetic and algebra and through them to the nations of the West”.
The Vedic Sutras are probably far earlier than the Alexandrian geometry of Hero 215 b.c. The earliest work on maths that has reached the authors is probably the Bakshali Manuscript (3rd or 4th century a.d.). It is in sutra form with examples mixed in verse written in mixed S. From references in Jaina works we learn that Indians had made much progress in 4th century B.C. in the process of permutation and combination.
Astrology - The list of old masters includes Satyacarya, Vishnugupta, Siddhasena to name a few. The best treatise is perhaps Brhat Samhita by Varahamihira whose opening section called tantra deals with astronomy and maths, second section hora deals with horoscopes and the third with natural astrology. It is a masterly work written in elegant S in kavya style and covers almost all the sciences that in ancient India were associated with man’s life on earth. There were many other books too.
Physiognomy and palmistry - In the Visnudharmottara, the Agni and a number of other Puranas, and also in the Brhat Samhita, physiognomy has been dealt with. It aims at predicting the nature, character traits and fate based on certain peculiarities of character. In the course of time it came to be treated as an ancillary science of astrology known as samudrika-sastra. Palmistry was originally part of this book but due to its popularity it was elevated to the position of a major science.
In the Bhavisyottara Purana there is a chapter on palmistry. In India this science is ascribed to Narada. There are many other works too.
There were also numerous works on mechanical devices eg Bhoja’s principle of making a machine to lift a heavy weight, on art and architecture like Visnudhamottara, on drama like Narya-sastra by Bharata, on music and dance there are endless number of books referred to in the Cultural Heritage of India.