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Historical research of the past two or three decades has shown that mathematical astronomy, geometry, algebra and other science arose first in India. Everyone knows that the sign for zero was invented in India about two thousand years ago. It is much less known that important concepts like that of recursion, algebraic transformation, mathematical logic, abstract language description, binary numbers, combinatory also arose in India several centuries before their rediscovery in the West.

The Indian culture area provides us extensive material, across a very broad time-span, to help us understand the earliest history of ideas. The ancient Indian texts are layered in such a fashion that we can see the gradual development of mathematical, physical, linguistic, and psychological ideas. We find that the ancient Indians were greatly interested in mathematical methods in geometry, astronomy, grammar, music and other fields. They were also interested in cognitive science where they were so advanced that their insights may yet be useful to modern science.

The understanding of the chronological framework of the Indian civilization has changed greatly in the last few years due to revolutionary discoveries in art and archaeology.


The earliest Indic art is preserved on rocks in the paleolithic, mesolithic and neolithic stages (40000 B.C.E. onwards) and the seals and the sculpture of the Indus-Sarasvati phase which lasted from about 8000 B.C.E. to 1900 B.C.E. According to Wakankar, the beginnings of the rock art have been traced to 40,000 years BP (before present) in the decorated ostrich eggshells from Rajasthan, dated using radiocarbon techniques. Subsequent phases have been determined using evolution of style and other radiocarbon dates. The mesolithic period has been dated as 12000 to 6000 BP.

It has been found that there is significant continuity of motif in the rock art and the later Indus-Sarasvati civilization indicating an unbroken link with the paleolithic and the mesolithic cultures of India.

We see tessellations in the ancient rock art of India. It has been argued that these designs occur at the lowest stratum of the rock paintings and if that is accepted they belong to the upper paleolithic period. These designs are unique to India in the ancient world. Tyagi has suggested that they may represent a ``trance experience.''

The basic feature of these tessellations is infinite repetition. This repetition may occur for a basic pattern or, more abstractly, the lines extend spatially in a manner so that a basic pattern is repeated in two directions. An understanding of this abstract concept must have been a part of the thought system of the artists. This is another continuity with the central place of the notion of infinite in later Indian thought.

The abstract and the iconic elements in Indian rock art are different from the more naturalistic ancient European cave paintings. There is also difference in the nature of the community and state in the Western and the Indian civilizations in the earliest urban phase. The West has monumental temples, tombs, palaces whereas the society in India appears to have been governed by a sacred order.


One aspect of the Indian literary tradition, which is at least four thousand years old, is its imagination. The epic Mahabharata mentions embryo transplantation, multiple births from the same fetus, battle with extra-terrestrials who are wearing air-tight suits, and weapons of mass-destruction. The Ramayana mentions air travel. The Bhagavata Purana, a medieval encyclopaedic text, has episodes related to different passage of time for different observers which is very similar to what happens in the theory of relativity.

The notion of self in the Upanishads embodies a very subtle understanding of observers and of reality. Yoga Vasishtha and Tripurarahasya present a deep discussion of the nature of consciousness.

Puranic cosmology gives an age of the universe that is in close agreement with the modern value. We find examples of accurate astronomical numbers in the early texts. Perhaps, this accuracy was due to the knowledge of biological cycles that reflect astronomical processes, such as menses according to the period of the moon. The understanding of the outer was helped along by an understanding of the inner.

Scientific Books

Although thousands of ancient Indian scientific texts have been examined by modern scholars, many others lie languishing in libraries and temple storerooms. Just what has been studied presents us a picture of astonishing sophistication of Indian science in many fields.

Source: T.R.N. Rao and S. Kak Computing Science in Ancient India USL Press, Lafayette 1998.

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