THE BLOG

Fifteen Indian Inventions and Discoveries That Shaped the Modern World - Part 1

16/07/2013 14:30 | Updated 14 September 2013

According to the celebrated American author of The Story of Civilization, Will Durant, "It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier, India has sent to the West such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system.

India was the mother of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe's languages. She was the mother of our philosophy, mother through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics, mother through Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity, mother through village communities of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all."

Despite India's extraordinary civilisational achievements being well documented by respected Western scholars, accurate knowledge of the country's history has seldom entered the public domain, most especially in Britain.

As India prepares to celebrate its 67th Independence Day next month, this blog post, the first in a new series about an India that many of us know little about, lists the first four of fifteen ground-breaking contributions that India has made to the lives that all of us lead today in Britain, and around the world.

"..India has sent to the West such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system. She was the mother of our philosophy..of much of our mathematics..of the ideals embodied in Christianity..of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all." Will Durant.

1. The Indian/Hindu Numeral System: Few people are aware that the numbers that we all use today are an Indian invention. Often referred to as Arabic numerals, after the Arab traders who brought Indian mathematical concepts to the West, this path-breaking Indian invention replaced the cumbersome Roman numeral system in use in the West until then, and stands as one of the greatest human inventions of all time.

"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.

The ingenious Indian system succeeded where the efforts of other great civilisations failed, and today underpins the foundation of modern mathematics and its infinite uses in our day-to-day lives.

Beyond the numeral system itself, a number of other critical mathematical principles also have their routes in India, whose scientific texts and discoveries were regularly studied by foreign scholars, from Greek philosophers to Arab mathematicians, and from British inventors to Nazi and Cold War era rocket and nuclear scientists.

"Nearly all the philosophical and mathematical doctrines attributed to Pythagoras are derived from India." Ludwig von Shroeder

2. Carburised Steel: Ancient Indians were known pioneers in metallurgy, and had mastered the production of high quality steel more than two thousand years before the process was finally demystified (including through the scientific investigations of Michael Faraday) in Britain and Europe. The legendary Indian Wootz Steel was a source of astonishment to other great civilisations from Ancient Greece to Persia, and from Arabia to Ancient Rome. It was so advanced and prized that it was selected by King Porus as a gift over the gold and silver also offered to him by Alexander the Great.

The ancient Indian technique of making high quality steel today forms the basis of modern steel production for everything from the vehicles we travel in, to the cutlery we eat with. Barely seven decades after independence, India has again become a world leader in metallurgy and high quality steel production.

3. Contributions to Western Philosophy: Historians are well aware that the Ancient Greeks and Romans were infatuated with India, just as our forefathers in Britain were during the early modern era. As much as the Ancient Greeks marvelled over Indian technology, town planning and state craft, they also actively sought new ideas and thoughts from India's Vedic scriptures and philosophers, as well as by learning at ancient Indian universities such as Taxila and Nalanda.

Many scholars have pointed to significant Indian contributions to Ancient Greek philosophy, often portrayed as the foundation of human - and certainly Western - philosophy. In a thorough recent analysis in The Shape of Ancient Thought, American scholar Thomas McEvilley also details how Indian philosophy directly influenced key facets of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy.

"Is it not probable that the Brahmins were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians ? The Greeks, before the time of Pythagoras, travelled into India for instruction." Voltaire.

4. Clothing the world: Another revolutionary Indian contribution was the development, production and use of cotton textiles for clothing. The Ancient Greeks were initially not even familiar with cotton, instead often wearing animal skins until the wars of Alexander the Great, during which they discovered and started using Indian garments, which essentially clothe all of us today.

"Hundreds of years before the Christian era, cotton textiles were woven in India with matchless skill, and their use spread to the Mediterranean countries." The Columbia Encyclopaedia

For us in Britain, it is important to be aware that one of the pillars of our wealth as a modern nation, and a foundation of our industrial revolution, was directly derived from knowledge and experience of high quality textiles production and trade gained in India, as well as what many economic historians argue was the deliberate dismantling of India's pioneering textiles industry. In his book The Political Economy of Imperialism, Dan Nadudere states that "It was by destroying the Indian textile industry that the British textile industry ever came up at all."

In next week's article, I will highlight five further remarkable but mostly unknown Indian discoveries that are central to our daily lives. For a broader understanding of an India that few of us are aware of, I would recommend watching the brilliant British historian Michael Wood's The Story of India, previously broadcast by the BBC in our country, and via PBS in the United States.

"If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India." Max Mueller

Abhaey Singh is the Chairman of Kauzala, and the President of the Indian Debating Union. He is best known for his popular rap video 'Talk It Out - Debaters' Rhapsody' which promotes civilised debate, and his talks on India.