Thursday, February 22, 2007

India's contributions to humanity

A letter writer to my local paper claims that because “intellectually enlightened Western European Christians came to America 400 years ago,” America does not “resemble Laos, India, Ethiopia or Iran,” but instead possesses “the cities and the institutions that are the envy of the world.” This statement appears to be based more on prejudice than on fact.

There have been numerous civilizations throughout history; many were learned in the arts, sciences, humanities and metaphysics. Athens, for example, was a democracy devoted to human excellence in mind and body, to philosophy, and to the cultivation of the art of living. While Christianity kept the West in the Dark Ages for over a millennium, the civilizations in Asia were flourishing.

“India was the motherland of our race and Sanskrit the mother of European languages,” wrote American Scholar Will Durant in Our Oriental Heritage. “She was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India, in many ways, is the mother of us all.”

Historian A. Kalyanaraman supports Durant’s observations in his 1969 text, Aryatarangini, by citing evidence from the principle Hindu scriptures, known as the Vedas, as well as the testimony of Megasthenes. Megasthenes journeyed from the Greco-Roman world to India during the 3rd century BC. He served as an ambassador to the court of Chandragupta, where he had been sent by the king of Taxila. Kalyanaraman finds a great deal of political freedom and equality in ancient India, where social mobility was acknowledged.

The Vedas describe numerous sages who were of low birth, but were considered by their virtue to have been raised to the highest status. The Greek Megasthenes observed: “The law ordains that none among them under any circumstances be a slave; enjoying freedom, they shall expect the equal right to it which others possess...All Indians are free and not one of them is a slave. The Indians do not use even aliens as slaves; much less a countryman of their own.”

The earliest moral and legal codes (Dharma-sastras and Niti-sastras) originated in India, as did the earliest representative institutions (Sabha and Parishad). A Western text, India: Yesterday and Today, also says, “the four orders...of Hindu society...were classes in the Western sense rather than castes in the Indian manner.”

Long before Columbus’ era, India had a reputation throughout the world for its opulence. “The part of India known as Malabar,” wrote Marco Polo, “was the richest and noblest country in the world.” Kalyanaraman writes that Egypt traded ivory, precious stones, gold and sandalwood with India, while Rome traded Indian spices—mostly cinnamon and cassia. The Puranas mention sandalwood from Malaysia. Ancient India’s epic poem, the Mahabharata, even compares the women of the Mediterranean to the goddesses of the higher worlds.

The Rig Veda, one of four Vedas, refers to metallurgy. The Vedas also refer to mining iron ore, copper, brass and bronze. By the 6th century AD, India was far ahead of Europe in industrial chemistry. The Hindus were masters at calcination, distillation, sublimation, steaming, making anesthetics, soporific powders, metallic salts, compounds and alloys. India was producing steel during the era of Alexander. Centuries later, steel would be introduced to Europe by the Muslims.

The Vedas mention herbal medicines. They also discuss various afflictions and symptoms, and prescribe cures, depending on whether the disease is chronic and acute, and contagious or non-contagious. Jivaka (6th century BC) was adept at surgical operations such as trepanning of the skull, abdominal openings to cure hernia, etc.

Panini’s classical work on grammar, the Ashtadhyani contains a comprehensive list of parts of the body (human anatomy) as well as rare and common diseases. He further describes ligaments, sutres, lymphatics, nerve plexus, adipose and vascular tissues, mucous and synovial membranes with astonishing accuracy. Susruta dealt with surgery, obstetrics, dieting, baths, drugs, infant feeding, personal hygiene and medicinal education. He also understood the process of digestion and the functions of the stomach and liver.

The ancient Sanskrit literatures contain the Manu-Samhita, which has been called the religious lawbook for mankind—comparable to Mosaic Law or the Sharia. These Laws of Manu warn against marrying someone with tuberculosis, epilepsy and chronic dyspepsia. A remarkably accurate account of prenatal human development—from fertilization to birth—is given in the third canto of the Bhagavata Purana, one of Hinduism’s most revered devotional texts.

Bhavamisra, in 1550, detailed the circulation of blood in a book written on anatomy and physiology, a century before the West. Susruta described cataract surgery, hernia, cesarean section, the dissection of cadavers and the use of skin grafts to repair a torn ear. Rhinoplasty (fixing a broken nose) was a common practice. A drug called “sammohini” was used as an anesthetic. Ancient in Indians were experts in plastic surgery until the 18th century. They knew the importance of taking a pulse. They were aware that mosquito bites transmit diseases as far back as the 6th century BC.

Square roots and cube roots and the “Pythagorean” theorem are mentioned in the Sulbha Sutras of Bodhayana. (700 BC) Bodhayana also calculated the areas of triangles, circles, and trapezoids and determined pi = 3.14136 when measuring and constructing altars. Aryabhata (5th century AD) drew up a table of sines and provided India with a system of trigonometry more sophisticated than that of the Greeks. Ancient mathematical texts such as the Jyotisha Vedanga dealt with geometry, fractions, quadratic and cubic equations, algebra, permutations and combinations.

In the West, we have been taught to call our base-ten system of numeration (which replaced Roman numerals) “Arabic numerals.” India gave the world the base-ten numerical system, our modern numerical script, and the concept of zero as a placeholder and a numerically recorded quantity. Indian mathematics came to the West through the Arabs. The Arabs called mathematics “Hindisat,” or “Indian art.”

Before Newton, Bhaskara (1150 AD) was well-acquainted with the principles of differential calculus and the concept of infinity. Astronomers such as Vachaspati (800 AD) anticipated the foundations of solid coordinate geometry centuries before Descartes. They also explained the movement of celestial bodies in terms of the earth’s rotation and motion about the sun. Charaka, a physician from the 7th century BC, described the wave motion of light, had a calendar of 12 lunar months and classified stars into zodiacal constellations.

India had rockets in the late 18th century; they were even used in military battles against the British. This generated interest in rocket technology in England. The Indian people built “iron forts and thousand pillared halls” and were described by observers as adorning themselves in silk, wool, linen and cotton.

Although it is an agnostic moral philosophy, Buddhism teaches a consistent ethic of reverence for all life. No wars have ever been waged in the name of Buddhism. Similarly, the act of abortion is explicitly condemned in the Buddhist canonical scriptures.

Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic biography on Siddhartha Gautama, The Light of Asia, caused quite a controversy in Victorian England: centuries before Jesus, an earlier teacher lived “the Christ life.”

The ethical teachings of the Buddha are quite similar to those found in the Gospel of Jesus: One must never be proud, nor harbor anger against anyone. He who humbles himself shall be exalted, while the one who exalts himself shall be degraded. Harsh language must never be used against anyone.

Avoid lust, anger and greed. One should not scrutinize the mote in a neighbor’s eye without first noticing the beam in one’s own. One must “turn the other cheek” if attacked or abused. One’s own possessions must be shared with the less fortunate. If a man obtained the whole world and its riches, he still would not be satisfied, nor would this save him.

In 261 BC, the Indian emperor Ashoka witnessed firsthand the innumerable casualties he caused during one of his many military campaigns. His heart was filled with grief. He converted to Buddhism. 19th century scholar and writer H.G. Wells considered Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism one of the most significant events in world history.

Ashoka, formerly a bloody and ruthless emperor, became a remarkably kind and gentle leader. Ashoka established some of the first animal rights laws. He stopped the royal hunt, the sacrifice of animals in his capital city, the killing of animals for food in the royal kitchens, and gave up the eating of meat. Ashoka made it illegal to kill many species of animals, such as parrots, ducks, geese, bats, turtles, squirrels, monkeys and rhinos.

He forbade the killing of pregnant animals, or animals that were nursing their young. He declared certain days to be “non-killing days,” on which fish could not be caught, nor any other animals killed. He established wells and watering holes, places of rest and hospitals for humans and animals alike.

Ashoka educated his people to have compassion for animals, and to refrain from killing or harming them. He sent missionaries to all the neighboring kingdoms to teach mercy, compassion and nonviolence. Through Ashoka’s patronage, Buddhism was spread all over the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism would eventually reach the rest of Asia; today there are an estimated 300 to 600 million Buddhists worldwide.

For thousands of years, India has enjoyed music, orchestral bands, dance, song, stage acting and all the other fine arts. A. Kalyanaraman writes that in comparison to other parts of the world, slavery was virtually nonexistent. There did exist various forms of indentured servitude, but none as brutal as in the West.

Kalyanaraman further insists that the whole of Southeast Asia received most of its culture from India. India gave the world rice, cotton, sugarcane, spices and chess. Indian philosophy and metaphysics can be found in Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, Emerson, Thoreau, and Schopenhauer. India has much to offer the West. India’s real treasure is her spiritual heritage.

“What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer stratum,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his Journal. “The religion and philosophy of the Hebrews are those of a wilder and ruder tribe, wanting the civility and intellectual refinements and civility of Vedic culture.”

Thoreau also compared Bhagavad-gita, or “The Lord’s Song,” with the New Testament. He concluded: “The New Testament is remarkable for its pure morality, the best of the Vedic Scripture for its pure intellectuality. The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad-gita. The Gita’s ‘sanity and sublimity’ have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants.”

In chapter 16 of Walden, Thoreau exclaimed: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

“I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-gita,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson on Hinduism’s most sacred text. “It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions that exercise us.”

History must not be written from a Western, colonialist perspective. These are just some of India’s contributions to humanity.


munendra said...

u r excellent .i am touched.u make me proud as a indian.

Anonymous said...

Modern India has transgressed on its predecessor. We are at the mercy of the H-inglish missionary education that wiped us clear of our antecedents.
We need more people like u to blog and help us re-discover who we really are..