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Chapter 29. Legacy in Science and Civilisation (Old NCERT History Ancient India)

29. Legacy in Science and Civilisation


Man’s confrontation with nature gave rise to significant developments. People had to overcome the difficulties presented by the jungles, hills, hard soils, droughts, floods, animals, etc. in earning their livelihood. In this process they developed technology and a scientific outlook. But certain difficulties were found insurmountable and the natural phenomena inexplicable Hence people had to come to terms with them. Besides their efforts, they depended on the fertility of the soil, timely rain and similar other gifts of the nature. Both the bounty and the hostility of nature led them to think of religion and supernatural agencies.
Brahmanism or Hinduism developed as the dominant religion in early India. It influenced the development of art and literature and also of society. In addition to Brahmanism, India gave rise to Jainism and Buddhism. Although Christianity came to this country in about the first century A.D., it did not make much headway in ancient times. Buddhism also disappeared from India in course of time, though it had spread as far as Japan in the east and as far as Central Asia in the north-west. In the process of diffusion, Buddhism projected a good deal of Indian art, language and literature in the neighbouring areas, Jainism Continued in India and helped the development of its art and literature, Till today it has a good many followers, especially in the trading communities in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka.

The Varna System.

Religion influenced the formation of social classes in India in a peculiar way. In other ancient societies the duties and functions of social classes were fixed by law which was largely enforced by the state. But in India varna laws enjoyed the sanction of both the state and religion. The functions of priests, warriors, peasants and labourers were; defined in law and supposed to have been laid down by divine agencies. Those who departed from their functions and were found guilty of offences were subjected to secular punishments. They had also to perform rituals and penances, all differing according to the varna. Each varna was given not only a social but also a ritualistic recognition, In course of time varnas or social classes and jails or castes were made hereditary by law and religion. All this was done to ensure that vaishyas produce and pay taxes and shudras serve as labourers so that brahmanas act as priests and kshatriyas as rulers. Based on the division of labour and specialisation of occupations, the peculiar institution of the caste system certainly helped the growth of society and economy at the initial stage. The varna system contributed to the development of the state. The producing and labouring classes were disarmed and gradually each caste was pitted against the other in such a manner that the oppressed ones could not combine against the privileged classes.
The need of carrying out their respective functions was so strongly ingrained in the minds of the various classes that ordinarily they would never think of deviating from their dharma. The Bhagavadgita taught that people should lay down their lives in defence of their own dharma rather than adopt the dharma of others, which would prove dangerous. The lower orders worked hard in the firm belief that they would deserve a better life in the next world or birth. This belief lessened the intensity and frequency of tensions and conflicts between those who actually produced and those who lived off these producers as princes, priests, officials, soldiers and big merchants. Hence the necessity for exercising coercion against the lower orders was not so strong in ancient India. What was done by slaves and other producing sections in Greece and Rome under the threat of whip was done by the vaishyas and shudras out of conviction formed through brahmanical indoctrination and the varna System.

Philosophical Systems

The Indian thinkers looked upon the world as illusion and deliberated deeply on the relation between the soul and God. In fact philosophers of no other country delved so deeply into this problem as the Indians did. Ancient India is considered famous for its contribution to philosophy and spiritualism. But the Indians also developed a materialistic view of the world. In the six systems of philosophy which the Indians created we find elements of materialist philosophy in the samkhya system of Kapila, who was born around 580 B.C. He believed that the soul can attain liberation only through real knowledge, which can be acquired through observation, inference and words. The samkhya system does not recognize the existence of God. According to it, the world has not been created by God but by nature and the world and human life are regulated by natural forces.
Materialist philosophy received the greatest impetus from Charvaka, who lived in about the sixth century B.C. The philosophy that he propounded is known as lokayata. He argued that what is not experienced by man through his sensual organs does not really exist. It implies that gods do not exist. However, with the decline in trade, handicrafts and urbanism the idealist system of philosophy came to the forefront. The idealist system taught that the world is an illusion. People were asked by the Upanishadas to abandon the world and to strive for real knowledge. Western thinkers have taken to the teachings of the Upanishads because they are unable to solve the human problems created by modern technology. The famous German philosopher Schopenhauer finds in his system a place for the Vedas and the Upanishadsa. He used to say that the Upanishads consoled film in this life and would also console him after death.

Crafts and Technology

It would be wrong to think that the Indians did not make any progress in material culture. They attained proficiency in several fields of production. The Indian craftsmen were great experts in dyeing and making various. kinds of colours. The basic colours made in India were so shining and lasting that the beautiful paintings of Ajanta are still intact.
Similarly, the Indians were great experts in the art of making steel. This craft was developed first in India. The Indian steel was exported to many countries of the world since very, early times and came to be called wootz in later times. No other country to the world could manufacture such steel swords as were made by Indian craftsmen. They were in great demand in the entire region from Asia to Eastern Europe.


The Arthashastra of Kautilya leaves no doubt that, the Indians could run the administration of a large empire and tackle-the problems of a complex society. The country produced a great ruler in Ashoka, who in spite of his great victory over Kalinga, adopted a policy of peace and non-aggression. Ashoka and several other Indian kings practised religious toleration and stressed-that the washes of the followers of the other religions should be respected. Furthermore, India was the only other country with Greece to make experiments in some kind of democracy.

Science and Mathematic

India made an important contribution to science. In ancient times religion and science were closely linked together. Astronomy made great progress in the county because the planets came to be regarded as gods and their movements began to be closely observed. Their study became essential on account their connections with changes in seasons and weather connditions which is extremely important for agricultural activities. The science of grammar became important arose because the ancient brahmanas stresses that every Vedic prayer and even mantra should be recited with meticulous correctness.
By the third century B.C. mathematics, astronomy and. medicine began to develop separately. In the field of mathematics the ancient Indians made three distinct contributions the notation system, the decimal system and the use of zero. The earliest epigraphic evidence for the use of the decimal system is in the beginning of the fifth century A.D. The Indian notational system was adopted by the Arabs who spread it in the Western world. The Indian numerals are called Arabic in English, but the Arabs themselves called their numerals hindsa. Before these numerals appeared in the West they had been used in India for centuries. They are found in the inscriptions of Ashoka, which were writ ten in the third century B.C.
The Indians were the first to use the decimal system. The famous mathematician Aryabhata (A.D. 476-500) was acquainted with it. The Chinese learnt this system from the Buddhist missionaries and the Western world borrowed it from the Arabs when they came in contact with India. Zero was discovered by the Indians in about the second century B.C. Since the time of its discovery the Indian mathematicians considered zero as a separate numeral and it was used in this sense in sums of arithmetic. In Arabia, the earliest use of zero appears in A.D. 873. The Arabs learnt and adopted it from India and spread it in Europe. Although both the Indians and the Greeks contributed to the discipline of algebra, in Western Europe its knowledge was borrowed mot from Greece but from the Arabs who had acquired it from India.
The brick constructions of Harappa show that irk north-western India people possessed a good knowledge of measurement and geometry. Ultimately the Vedic people may have benefited from this knowledge, which appears in the Sulvasutras of about the fifth century B.C. In the second century B.C. Apastamba produced a practical geometry for the construction of altars at which the kings could offer sacrifices. It describes acute angle, obtuse angle and right angle. Aryabhata formulated the rule for finding the area of a triangle, which led to the origin of trigonometry. The most famous work of this time is the Suryasiddhanta, the like of which is not found in contemporary ancient East.
The most renowned scholars of astronomy were Aryabhata and Varahamihira. Aryabhata belonged to the fifth century and Varahatnihira to the sixth. Aryabhata calculated the position of the planets according to the Babylonian method. He discovered the cause of lunar and solar eclipses. The circumference of the earth which he measured on the basis of speculation is considered to be correct even now. He pointed out that the sun is stationary and the earth rotates the book of Aryabhata is called the Aryahhatiya.
Varahamihira’s well-known work is called the Brihatsamhita, which belongs to the sixth century A.D. Varahamihira stated that the moon rotates round the earth and the earth rotates round the sun. He utilized several Greek works to explain the movement of the planets and some other astronomical problems. Although the Greek knowledge Influenced Indian astronomy, the Indians doubtless pursued the subject further and made use of it in their observations of the planets.
In the applied field, Indian craftsmen contributed much to the progress of chemistry. The Indian; dyers invented lasting colours and they also discovered the blue colour, It has been already stated how the Indian smiths were the first in the world to manufacture steel.


The ancient Indian physicians studied anatomy. They devised methods to diagnose diseases and prescribed medicines for their cure. The earliest mention of medicines is in the Atharva Veda. But as in other ancient societies, the remedies recommended were replete with magical charms and spells and medicine could not develop aloifg scientific lines.
In the second century A.D. India produced two famous scholars of the Ayurveda, Sushrata and Charaka; In the Sushrutasamhita, Sushruta describes the method of operating cataract, stone disease and several other ailments. He mentions as many as 121 implements to be used for operations. In the treatment of disease he lays special emphasis on diet and cleanliness, Char aka’s Charakasamhita is like an encyclopaedia of Indian medicine. It describes various types of fever, leprosy, hysteria (mirgi) and tuberculosis. Possibly Charaka did not know that some of these are infectious. His book contains the names of a large number of plants and herbs which were to be used as medicine. The book is thus useful not only for the study of Indian medicine but also for that of ancient Indian flora and chemistry. In subsequent centuries Indian medicine developed on the lines laid down by Charaka.


Ancient Indians also made some contribution to the study of geography. They had little knowledge of the geography of the lands outside India, but the rivers, mountain ranges, places of pilgrimage and different regions of the country are described in the epics and Puranas. Although Indians were acquainted with China and Western countries, they neither had any clear idea of where they lay nor of their distances from India.
In early times the ancient Indians obtained some knowledge of navigation and they contributed to the craft of shipbuilding. But since important political powers had their seats of power far away from the coast and since there was no danger from the seaside, the ancient Indian princes did not pay any particular attention to navigation.

Art and Literature

The ancient Indian masons and craftsmen produced beautiful works of art. The monolithic pillars erected by Ashoka are famous for their shining polish, which matches the polish on Northern Black Polished Ware. It is still a mystery how the craftsmen could achieve this kind of polish on pillars and pottery. The Mauryan polished pillars were mounted by statues of animals, especially lions. The lion capital has been adopted as the national emblem of the Republic of India. We may also refer to the cave temples of Ajanta as well as the famous Ajanta paintings, which go back to the beginning of the Christian era. In a way Ajanta is the birth-place of Asian art. It contains as many as 30 cave temples, constructed between the second century B C; and the seventh century A.D. The paintings appeared in the second century A.D. and most of them belong to Gupta times. Their themes were borrowed from stories about previous incarnations of the Buddha and from other ancient literature. The achievement of Indian painters at Ajanta has been lauded by all art connoisseurs. The lines and colours used at Ajanta display a proficiency which is not found in the world until the renaissance in Europe. Indian art, moreover, was not limited to India; it spread to Central Asia and China at one end and to South-East Asia on the other. The focal point of the spread of Indian art into Afghanistan and the neighbouring parts of Central Asia was Gandhara. Elements of Indian art were fused with those of Central Asian and Hellenistic art giving rise to a new art style called the Gandhara style. The first statue of the Buddha was fashioned in this style. Although its features are Indian, the size and the presentation of the head and the drapery show Greek influence. Similarly, the temples constructed in south India served in some ways as models for the construction of temples in South East Asia. We have already referred to the temple at Ankorvat in Cambodia and the temple at Borobudur in Java.
In the field of education we may refer to the huge monastic establishment of Nalanda. It attracted students not only from different parts of India but also from Tibet and China. The standards of examination were stiff and only those who could pass the test prescribed by the dvarapandita or the ‘scholar at the gate could be admitted to this university. Nalanda is one of the earliest examples of a residential-cum-teaching institution which housed thousands of monks devoted to learning, philosophy and meditation.
In the field of literature the Indians produced the Rig Veda which is the earliest specimen of Indo-Aryan literature and on the basis of which an attempt has been made to determine the nature of the Aryan culture. In Gupta times we have the works of Kalidasa, whose play Abhyanashakuntcdam has been translated into all the important languages of the world.


1. Describe the legacy of ancient India in religion and philosophy.
2. Discuss the features of social organisation that are peculiar to the varna system.
3. Describe the contribution of ancient India to science, mathematics and medicine. Refer to works on the history of science in ancient India for.a group project on this topic.
4. Prepare a list of literary works composed in ancient India.
5. What was the contribution of ancient Indians to the study of language?
6. Give an account of the development of technology in ancient India.
7. Prepare a chart showing the development of art and architecture during different periods of ancient Indian history.
8. Discuss the contribution of religions to ancient Indian art and literature.

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