Understanding The Rise Of The West - Or What Happened To India, China And The Rest?

Understanding The Rise Of The West - Or What Happened To India, China And The Rest?
Dr Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a brilliant British biochemist who had obtained a doctorate from Cambridge University in 1925, specializing in embryology and morphogenesis. Later, Dr. Needham developed an interest in China, and after visiting that country several times, he wrote his mammoth book Science and Civilization in China in 24 volumes (see Simon Winchester’s The Man Who loved China).

In this book Needham posed the problem known as ‘Needham’s Question’ or ‘Needham’s Grand Question’ in respect of China, but which applies equally to India.

The problem is this: why did China (and India) – which were far ahead of Western countries in science and technology at one time – later fall behind? Why did they not have an Industrial Revolution, and therefore ended up backward, and consequently victims of imperialism and colonization, which caused enormous harm and misery to the peoples of these countries?

There is no doubt that both India and China were at one time far ahead of the Western countries in science and technology.

China invented gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and paper and printing - which, according to Sir Francis Bacon, were the three most important inventions facilitating Europe to pass from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. But why did China’s progress in science and technology stop thereafter? According to Dr. Needham it could have been the Confucian philosophy, which was incompatible with scientific development, which was responsible for this. But is this explanation not superficial?

As for India, I have explained in my article “Sanskrit as a language of Science” which is on my blog and Facebook, that India was far ahead of the West in ancient times.

See also this article.

For instance, Indians invented the decimal system in mathematics, which was one of the most revolutionary inventions in history.

The numerals in the decimal system were known as Arabic numerals by the Westerners, but the Arabs called them Indian numerals. Were they really Arabic or Indian ?

To answer this we may note that the languages Arabic, Persian and Urdu are written from right to left. But if we ask an Arab, Persian, or Urdu writer, to write any number (say 259 or 1,379), they will write it from left to right. What does this indicate? It suggests that these numbers were taken from a language which is written from left to right. And now it is accepted universally that the decimal system was invented in India. This decimal system had a number 0, which, again, is an India invention. The importance of 0 can be understood by considering the following:

The ancient Romans built a great civilization, the civilization of Caesar and Augustus. But if we were to ask an ancient Roman to write the number one million, they would have gone almost crazy. The reason for this is that the ancient Romans wrote their numbers in alphabets, V standing for 5, X standing for 10, L for 50, C for 100, D for 500, and M for 1,000. There was no alphabet expressing a number greater than 1,000. So if an ancient Roman had to write 2,000 they would have to write MM, if they wanted to write 3,000 they had to write MMM, and if they wanted to write one million, they had to write M a thousand times!

On the other hand, according to the system invented by the ancient Indians, to write 1 million, one had only to write 1 and then put 6 zeros after that. The ancient Greeks and Romans just did not have the imagination to conceive of a number called 0.

By using 0, our ancient ancestors could conceive of astronomically large numbers. Thus, a sahastra or 1,000 had 3 zeros after 1. If we add two more zeros we get one lakh (100,000). With two more zeros we get one crore (10,000,000) and with two more zeros we get one arab (1 billion). Two more zeros and we get one kharab, two more zeros gives us one padma, two more zeros gives one neel, two more zeros gives one shankh, two more gives one mahashankh, etc.

Aryabhatta, who reputedly lived in the 5th Century A.D. worked on quadratic equations, binomial theorem, etc, and calculated the value of pi to a fairly accurate degree. He also made significant contributions to astronomy, being perhaps the first person in the world to prove that the Earth rotates on its axis, thus causing day and night.Brahmagupta, Bhaskar, etc also made great contributions in mathematics, etc.

In medical science India was at least 1,000 – if not 1,500 – years ahead of any country. Thus, Sushrut, the father of surgery, invented plastic surgery in the 6th century B.C. while the British discovered it only towards the end of the 18th century A. D. during the Anglo-Mysore wars, and that, too, from an Indian vaidya who lived near Pune.

The harbour at Lothal in Gujarat, which is regarded as quite modern in its construction, was built around 5,000 years ago, and is regarded as part of the Indus Valley Civilization.

In my article ‘Sanskrit as a language of Science’ more details are given, and there is a great deal of literature showing our achievements in science and technology in ancient India. We were far ahead of the West at that time. in fact most Europeans (except in Greece and Rome) were living in forests at a time when we had built mighty civilizations with the help of science and technology.

Why, then, did we fall behind the West? Why did we not have an Industrial Revolution? Why was our advance in science and technology blocked, while Europe produced Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Descartes, Robert Boyle, Cavendish, Priestly, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Gauss, Planck, Rutherford, Heisenberg, Pauli, Niels Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Chadwick, Curie, Hahn etc in physics, chemistry and mathematics, Willim Harvey, Ross, etc in medicine, Edmund Halley, etc in astronomy, James Hutton in Geology, Hooke, Linnaeus, Buffon, and Darwin in biology, etc. No doubt we produced C. V. Raman, Srinivas Ramanujan, Chandrashekhar, S.N. Bose, etc but these are just a handful

What happened in the history of India to make the development of science and technology less important (after the great burst of scientific creativity in ancient India), while in the West it became more important?

This is Needham’s Grand Question for India, yet to be solved. In ‘Sanskrit as a language of Science’ I have attempted an answer, but I am myself not convinced of my own theory. I have suggested the geographical factor, but is this convincing? I am myself not sure about my own view.

Were there other cultural, economic or historical factors? A lot of scientific investigation is called for.

Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.