Saturday, January 10, 2015

Our Glorious Past: Myth And Reality

The recently held 102nd Indian Science Congress interestingly had a session on "Ancient Sciences Through Sanskrit". The paper which created the most flutter there was “Ancient Indian Aviation Technology”, presented by Captain Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training institute and Ameya Jadhav, a lecturer at the Swami Vivekanand International School and Junior College. The authors claimed that the knowledge of advanced aviation technology, capable of inter-planetary flights, was available since the ancient times. References were cited from the Rig Veda. As a landmark treatise on aviation was cited a book called Vymanika Shastra of which was claimed a very antique ancestry.

Among the other papers presented in the same session were, “Engineering Applications of Ancient Indian Botany”, by Ashok S Nene, an retired professor of Civil Engineering at VNIT Nagpur, and “Scientific Principles of Ancient Indian Architecture and Civil Engineering”, by Asawari Bapat, a visiting faculty of the Department of Sanskrit, Bombay University.

Since then lot has been written and debated about the futility of such efforts. There's no denying that what we are now, is a direct function of what we were in the past. Knowledge of our past, awareness of our heritage and culture, respect for our history, looking back, etc. are all very important aspects of building a strong and wise nation. But at the same time, always looking back for glorious past is as silly as ignoring it totally, both of which are rampant in our society.

There's a section of neo-modern people who mock at everything related to the past, and then there's another section who thrives only in the past. What's needed is a scientific analysis of the material available with us (in this case, ancient scripts and treatises) and an unbiased fact finding, without any particular agenda. Such efforts always throw out many interesting things. Even if the rationalists want to ignore the 'real' benefit of such fact findings, the sheer face value of the findings can produce good readerships and TRPs, something not a bad thing at all for the 24/7-breaking-news-seeking media.

Let me present a few such interesting findings, which strangely are not talked about much.

For long the numerals we use were known as Arabic numerals, as were referred to by Fibonacci, who introduced them to the Latin world sometime in 13th century AD. They replaced the Roman numerals completely by 15th century. The Arabs and the Persians had got them from India sometime in the 9th century. Presently they are always referred to as Hindu-Arabic numerals. But such was the ignorance about their origin till a few years back that in one of Dan Brown's novels, even Robert Langdon, who is an acclaimed Symbologist, refers to them as Arabic numerals, not Hindu-Arabic.

The Bakhshali Manuscript, discovered in the late nineteenth century at Bakhshali near Peshawar, and written sometime in the 9th or 10th century, is believed to be a later copy of a much older text which couldn't have been composed later than the 4th century. It's the first recorded instance of the use of a symbol for zero, which is represented by a ".", dot. Little confusingly, the same symbol is also the symbol for any unknown variable, something we refer to as "x" in algebra. The manuscript has a number of algebraic equations with their solutions, like the following:

One person possesses seven horses, another nine yaks, and another ten camels. Each gives two animals, one to each of the others. They are then equally well off. Find the price of each animal and the total value of the animals possessed by each person.

One very interesting thing about the Bhakshali Manuscript is its formula for finding out the square root of a number. If a number, say 41, is expressed as 62 + 5, in the form of A2 + b, then its square root, it says, can be approximated as A + b/2A - (b/2A)2/(2(A + b/2A)). This formula gives 6.40314 as the square root of 41, a result which's correct up to four places of decimal.

The manuscript represents fractions almost like how we do even now. 2/3 is depicted by writing 3 under 2, without any line though as we do it now. A mixed fraction like 1 1/2 is represented by writing 1 1 2 vertically, one below the other. Then there's also a symbol for a negative number. But interestingly, the symbol is "+", not "-" as we do it now.

All these, in fourth century, many centuries before anything remotely similar surfaced any where else in the world. Yes, we can be proud of it.

Next let us talk about the Hindu-Arabic numerals. The earliest evidences of the Hindu numerals are found in the Buddhist caves in the Western India (Ajanta et al) dating to the 1st century. 

In Greek and Hebrew the first nine alphabets of their lettering system were used to represent 1 to 9. Another way of representing numbers is to use the first letters of the words for them. It's like denoting "6" with the the symbol "s", the first letter of the word "six", and so on. In his book "The Alphabet, An Account of the Origin and Development of Letters" Isaac Taylor, a famous philologist, pointed out in the eighteen eighties that the old Indian numeral for "four" is actually the letter "cha" of the ancient Kharoshti script used in the present day Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ancient Gandhar region during Ashoka, Buddha and earlier. Ashoka's inscriptions in the Gandhar region were in this script which died down eventually, while the contemporary Brahmi script survived in the subcontinent as the progenitor of all the later scripts of South and South East Asia. Now "cha" is the first letter of "chatur", which is "four" in Sanskrit. Similarly, the numerals for five till nine, Isaac showed, were actually the first letters of the corresponding Sanskrit words - panchan for five, shash for six, saptan for seven, ashtan for eight and navan for nine - in Kharoshti. The same symbols, the obsolete letters of the ancient Kharoshti script, evolved into the present day Hindu-Arabic numerals used widely across the world. So when you write the numerals six of seven in English or Arabic, you are actually writing the first letters of the corresponding Sanskrit words, and that too in an ancient Indian script.

The evolution of the numerals for "4" and "5" is shown below, starting from the Kharoshti forms in India in the 1st century to the European forms in 14th century.

We can be proud of this too, wouldn't we?

Then how can we forget Aryabhat's contribution? As early as 5th century he created the first sine table of trigonometry. He used the  Sanskrit word ardha jya, half chord, or simply jya in short, to denote the sine of a number. The Arabs transliterated jya as jiab, a meaningless word in Arabic. It was replaced later with meaningful jaib, pocket or cover in Arabic. This was eventually translated to sinus in Latin and hence the term sine.

So does it matter whether India had inter-planetary aviation technology in the remote past? Is there a need to concoct stories and fraudulently create a treatise called Vymanika Shastra and claim it to be a work of antiquity? H.S. Mukunda, S.M. Deshpande, H.R. Nagendra, A. Prabhu and S.P. Govindaraju of the Indian Institute of Science had written a paper way back in 1974 titled "A CRITICAL STUDY OF THE WORK “VYMANIKA SHASTRA” where they proved that the treatise in question was created sometime in the early twentieth century and that nothing of what is mentioned there can be seriously taken as aviation technology. Why such fraudulence? Even without this, India has given enough to the world to be proud of.

As a passing note, it's worth mentioning that in the late nineteenth century book "Rigvedadi Bhashya Bhumika", Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati cited a few hymns from the Rig Veda, which he interpreted as being references to air planes. I'm no expert in the Rig Veda, neither am I a pundit in Sanskrit. Still, with my limited knowledge in both the Rig Veda and Sanskrit if I can figure out the gross incorrectness (it can't be accidental, as Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati was an extremely knowledgeable person whose expertise in Sanskrit is unquestionable) of his interpretations, it raises questions why someone like the Maharshi would indulge into such things.

The two lines from one of the hymns in question are as follows:

Trayah pavayo madhu-vaahane rathe somasya venaam anu vishva id viduh |
Traya skambhaasa skambhitaasa aarave trir natkam yaathas trir v asvinaa divaa ||

The first line when translated to English means: Three are the fellies in your honey-bearing car, madhu-vaahana ratha, that travels after Soma's loved one, venaa, as the world, vishva, knows. It's a hymn dedicated to the Ashwins, the two charioteers who appear in the sky before the dawn in a golden carriage drawn by horses or birds. It's really an extreme extrapolation to equate the "honey bearing car", madhu vaahana ratha, or the golden carriage to airplanes. Most epics are replete with such things which can't be anything more than figments of imaginations.

The second line is what I feel has been tweaked to forcibly bring references to airplanes.

It translates as: Three, traya, are the pillars, skambha, set upon it for support, skambhita: thrice journey, aarave, ye by night, nakta, thrice by day, divaa.

Maharshi's interpretation is: going from one island to another with these crafts in three days and nights. I can't figure out how this interpretation could be made out of the above lines. Few other such misleading interpretations have been cited by the IISC professors in their papers. These interpretations have been liberally used by the propagandists of Vyamika Shastra to support their antique aviation theory.

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