Great Indian Scientists of the Ancient and Medieval Period Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Great Indian Scientists of the Ancient and Medieval Period

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We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.
- Albert Einstein

Twenty-six centuries ago, much prior to the advent of modern medical science, an Indian physician, Sushruta, mended the severed nose of his patient. This revolutionary step, considered the world's first plastic-surgery, was a great milestone in the history of medical science, since the rest of the world knew little about human anatomy. India's knowledge, skill and scientific tradition dates back to some 3,000 BC. From the introduction of zero, to exploring the wonders of astronomy, chemistry, medicines, mathematics and physics, Indian scientists have left their footprints in every sphere of science.


Baudhayana, commonly known as a Vedic priest who lived around 800 BC, was also an architect and a mathematician, who actually explained the Pythagorean theorem many years before Pythagoras (c570 BC – c495 BC) was born. His book, Baudhayana Sulbasutra, is one of the oldest books on advanced mathematics. Baudhayana is also credited for many other mathematical discoveries, eg how to draw a circle and a square having the same area, the value of square root of two, and the approximate value of Pi which is calculated and corrected to five decimals.


Kanada was a sage who lived in the 6th Century BC. He is said to have born in Prabhas Kshetra, near Dwaraka in the western Indian state of Gujarat. He was the first proponent of atomic theory, and stated that the atom is indivisible and the world is made up of atoms. He had classified all the objects of creation as nine elements – earth, water, light, wind, ether, time, space, mind and soul. According to his theory, every object of creation is made up of atoms. Kanada also added that there are a variety of atoms that are as different as the different classes of substances. Kanada is also credited with the foundation of the Vaisheshika School of philosophy, and had authored the book Vaisheshika Sutra.


Sushruta was one of the earliest surgeons in recorded history. He lived in the 6th Century BC, nearly 150 years before Hippocrates; and left a book, Sushruta Samhita, explaining his surgical methods. In his book, amongst other things, Sushruta also described how to pull a tooth, how to mend broken bones, and how to fix blockages of intestines. Not only that, but Sushruta was also the first physician to advocate what is today known as the Caesarean surgery in childbirth cases. He was also an expert in removing kidney stones as well as locating and treating fractures. He was the first physician who mended a severed nose almost 26 centuries ago. The technique is not very different from what a plastic surgeon uses today.


Charaka, believed to be a Buddhist monk and physician, was born around 300 BC. He was one of the principal contributors to the ancient art and science of Ayurveda. Charaka Samhita, a book written by him, is a famous treatise used as a reference even today. The book even explores the fields of physiology, etiology and embryology. It has also been translated into many languages including Latin and Arabic. Charaka was the first physician to present the concepts of digestion, metabolism, immunity and fundamentals of genetics. He studied the anatomy of the human body and various organs, and calculated 360 as the total number of bones, including the teeth, present in the human body. He also advocated the heart as the controlling centre. Even today, Charaka is called the father of medicines, and is famed for his efficiency in illuminating the reason behind the illness with the lamp of knowledge and understanding of the science of human anatomy.


Acharya Patanjali, who lived in the 2nd Century BC, was one of the greatest Yogis of all times. He is credited with the first attempt to bring together all the knowledge contained in the ancient Indian science of yoga. He prescribed the control of prana or life-breath as the means to control the body, mind and soul. Acharya Patanjali's 84 yogic postures effectively enhance the efficiency of the respiratory, circulatory, nervous, digestive and endocrine systems, including numerous other organs of the human body. He's revered as a pioneer in the science of self-discipline, happiness and self-realisation. His renowned works are Yoga-sutra and Mahabhashya.


Pingala was the author of Chhandasastra (also known as Chhandasutra), the earliest known Sanskrit work on prosody. The book also presents the first known description of the Pascal's triangle (called Meru-prastaara) as well as the Fibonacci Series (called Matrameru). Little is known about him. He is sometimes identified as the younger brother of Panini, the Indian grammarian, or as Patanjali.


Aryabhatta, born in 476 AD, was a famous Indian mathematician and astronomer. He studied in the Nalanda University, and later became the Chancellor of the same. He was the first Indian astronomer, as far as documented history goes, to deduce the Earth is round and not flat1, and it rotates on its own axis, causing day and night. He was the first to declare that the moon has no light of its own, and that it shines only because it reflects the light of the sun. He also discovered that the Solar and the Lunar eclipses are caused by shadows cast by the moon and the Earth respectively. His most famous works are the Aryabhatiya and the Arya Siddhanta. Arya Siddhanta circulated mainly in the northwest of India and, through the Sasanian dynasty (224–651) of Iran, had a profound influence on the development of Islamic astronomy. The government of India named the country's first satellite, Aryabhatta (launched in 1975), after this great mathematician-astronomer.


Varahamihira was an Indian astrologer, astronomer and mathematician who lived in Ujjayini (Ujjain) between 505 and 587 AD. His book Pancha Siddhanta ('Five Treatises'), a compendium of Greek, Egyptian, Roman and Indian astronomy, holds a prominent place in the realm of astronomy, and it summarises five earlier astronomical treatises. His treatises also explore Western astronomy, based on Greek and Alexandrian reckoning and even giving complete Ptolemaic mathematical charts and tables. His other major works reveal his discoveries in the fields of mathematics, geography, science, botany and animal science. His work Brihat Samhita gives us descriptions of heavenly bodies, their movements and conjunctions. Varahamihira was one of the Navaratnas or 'Nine gems' in the court of the legendary ruler Vikramaditya of Ujjayini.


Brahmagupta (597-668 AD) was a great mathematician and astronomer from the West-Indian state of Rajasthan. He had become the head of the astronomical observatory in Ujjayini. He made many important contributions to the world of mathematics, including geometry and trigonometry. In his various mathematical works, amongst many other things, he had explained how to compute cube and cube root of an integer, gave rules facilitating the computation of squares and square-roots, and gave rules for dealing with five types of combinations of fractions. He also had a profound and direct influence on Islamic and Byzantine astronomy.

Brahmagupta's genius actually came in his treatment of the concept of zero. Till his time, zero was considered just as a place-holder digit, and it was Brahmagupta's Brahma Sphuta Siddhanta which is probably the earliest known text to treat zero as a number. The number zero is often attributed to the 7th Century mathematician Bhaskara as well.


Nagarjuna was a great Indian scientist who was born in Gujarat in 931 AD. He was a reputed chemist, an alchemist, a metallurgist and a medicine-man. As an alchemist, he was adept in the art of transmuting base metals to look like gold. The Arabs learnt this technique from him, and called it alchemy. The most famous work of Nagarjuna was Rasaratnakara, which deals with the formulation of Rasa or mercury compounds. In his treatises he has also discussed methods for extraction of metals like gold, silver, copper and tin. Nagarjuna had also made significant contributions in the field of curative medicines. He was famous for the books like Arogyamanjari and Yogasara. The famous Nalanda University appointed this profound scholar of versatile knowledge as their Chancellor. He was one of the wizards of chemistry, and his discoveries continue to impress and astonish scientists till today.


Halayudha, the mathematician, lived in the 10th Century AD. He gave a clear description of the Pascal's triangle, in his book Mritasanjeevani, a commentary on Pingala's Chhandasastra.


Mahavira (not the Jain Tirthankara) was an Indian mathematician who lived in the 9th Century AD. He worked in Mahishoor (Mysore) in Karnataka in southern India, where he was a member in a school of Mathematics. He made significant contributions to the development of Algebra. Mahavira had authored the book Ganita Sara Samgraha in 850 AD during the reign of King Amoghavarsha of the Rashtrakuta dynasty. It consisted of more than 1130 versified rules and examples divided in 9 chapters, and included all the mathematical knowledge of 9th Century India. This is the earliest Indian text we have that is devoted entirely to Mathematics. Mahavira also stressed the importance of Mathematics in all kinds of disciplines and various facets of life including love and cooking.


Sridhara was an Indian mathematician who lived around 870 – 930 AD. His birthplace is said to be either in Bengal or in Southern India. He's famous for his writings in practical algebra, and was one of the firsts to give a formula for solving quadratic equations. He's also known as the author of mathematical treatises, viz. Trisatika (also known as Patiganitasara), Patiganita, Ganitasara and Ganitapanchavimashi.


Aryabhatta-II was an Indian mathematician and astronomer who lived between 920 and 1,000 AD. He was the author of the book Mahasiddhanta, a treatise written in Sanskrit consisting of 18 chapters, dealing with various topics on astronomy and mathematics. He played a vital role by constructing a sine table accurate up to five decimal places.


Brahmadeva, an Indian mathematician and academician, lived in Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh in north India, between 1,060 and 1,130 AD. He's famous for his work Karanaprakasa, a commentary on Aryabhatta's Aryabhatiya. The commentary is in 9 chapters, and it follows the contents of the original work of Aryabhatta, including the longitudes of the planets, problems relating to the daily rotation of the heavenly bodies, eclipses of the sun and the moon, risings and settings, the lunar crescent and the conjunctions of the planets. Brahmadeva's commentary, dealing with trigonometry and its applications to astronomy was particularly popular in Madras (Chennai) in Tamil Nadu and Mahishoor in Karnataka, both in south India as well as in Maharashtra in west India.


Bhaskaracharya, also known as Bhaskara-II, who lived between 1114 and 1185 AD, was a genius in mathematics, especially in algebra and geometry. He was born in Sahyadri and headed the astronomical observatory in Ujjayini. He wrote six books on arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, geometry and astronomy. The most renowned of them have been Leelavati and Beejaganita. He suggested simple methods to calculate squares, square roots, cubes and cube roots of big numbers. He had proved Pythagoras' Theorem in just two lines. He also wrote about the gravitational force that helps to keep the planets, the sun, and the moon in their respective orbits much before the rest of the world even thought about such an explanation. His work on calculus predates Newton and Leibniz by over half a millennium. He's particularly revered for the discovery of the principles of differential calculus, and its application to astronomical problems and computations.


Triumphs by Indian scientists do not end here. India has given birth to innumerable scientists of world repute, starting from Janaki Ammal2, M. Visvesvaraya3, Jagadish Ch. Bose4, Acharya Prafulla Ch. Ray5, Srinivasan Ramanujan6, CV Raman7, Yellapragada Subbarao8, Prashanta Ch. Mahalanobis9, Meghnad Saha10, SN Bose11, till today's APJ Kalam12, M. Pillai and Rajesh Kumar, to name just a few. Many of them have won laurels at home and abroad including the Nobel Prize.

1This was first discovered by Plato in around 400 BC.2Famous botanist, renowned for her researches on sugarcane and the egg-plant, and for her studies on chromosomes of different garden plants.3An engineer par excellence, he was the driving force behind many major dams and water supply schemes in India.4A pioneer of modern science in India. His research was on the properties of electro-magnetic waves. He's also known for his experiments demonstrating the sensitivity and growth of plants.5Considered father of the Indian chemical industry.6A prodigious mathematician who discovered 100 theorems on mathematics.7Nobel Prize laureate for Physics for his discovery of the Raman effect.8An Indian biochemist who researched on treatment of cancer, and on many other lifesaving medical issues.9Indian statistician who devised the Mahalanobis distance and was instrumental in formulating India's strategy for industrialisation in the Second Five-Year Plan.10An astrophysicist who became famous for his Saha Equation.11Noted for his collaboration with Albert Einstein in developing a theory regarding the gas-like qualities of electromagnetic radiation. Famous for the Bose-Einstein statistics and the sub-atomic particle the boson.12Former President of India. he played a pivotal role in the development of nuclear and space research development of India. Often called the missile man of India.

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