WRITTEN BY R. NANJAPPA                        

Post No. 8580

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Chapter -11 Part 1


Indian Science and Technology-2

Arithmetic and Algebra

Two of the papers included in Dharampal’s collection deal with Indians’ knowledge of Algebra. This is something that baffled the Britishers. They found that Indians possessed knowledge of systems and formulae by which they made astronomical calculations, such as predicting eclipses, and even the building of the observatory at Benares, which would not have been possible without sound knowledge of Algebra. 

[ “Astronomy is a subject that requires a larger stock of mathematical knowledge than is usually imagined, and therefore on the renewal of learning previous to the building of the Observatory at Benares…there must have been some proficiency made in the sciences.” Reuben Burrow, 1783] 

They found this knowledge to be superior to that possessed by the Arabs and the Greeks. They knew also that the Arabs were not original discoverers but only scholars; they knew that the Hindus had nothing to gain by learning from the Greeks. Yet they were unwilling to concede the superiority of the Indians unreservedly.

The above quotation from Burrow is from an unpublished paper he sent to Governor General Warren Hastings. He published a paper in 1790 stating that Hindus had known the Binomial Theorem. He said that he was engaged in translating “Lilavati” and ‘Beej Ganeta’ “or the Arithmetic and Algebra of the Hindoos” and that it was obvious to him that “there must have been treatises existing where Algebra was carried much farther: because many of their rules in Astronomy are approximations deduced from infinite series.” He said on the basis of what he saw that “they had elements not long ago, and apparently more extensive than those of Euclid is obvious from some of their works….there are indications of an Astronomy superior to that of the Soorya Siddhant, and such popular treatises”.

H.T.Colebrook provided a long introduction on Hindu Algebra in his book published in 1817. This was based on the previous discussions on the subject among scholars. He said that this “science in a more advanced state subsisted among the Hindus prior to the earliest disclosure of it by the Arabians to modern Europe.”
 It was however too much for him to admit the superiority of the Hindus, attained on their own. So he hinted that the Hindus must have learnt something from the Greeks. This presumption was immediately dismissed by the reviewer of the book in the Edinburgh Review of November, 1817. He said: ” the Greeks had nothing to give on the subject which was worth the while of the Indians to receive.”

 The difficulty of the Europeans arose both from their notions of Eurocentric superiority, and the fact that Indians were not communicative, and treatises they possessed were fragments, and no one knew (or would disclose) where the other parts might be. Obviously, with the decline of local rulers and their prosperity and patronage, scholars and scholarship suffered. The unwillingness on the part of Indians to communicate might also be reflective of the arrogance of the Britishers. We see from the instance of M.Le Gentil that Indian teachers were indeed willing to teach foreigners who approached in the right spirit. [This was indeed the case later with Sir John Woodroffe who learned Tantra from an authentic Indian practitioner.] The papers provided by Dharampal are sufficiently interesting for the general reader, and must provide serious material to advanced students for further study , research and  reflection. However, it is doubtful that many Indian students of mathematics today, who mainly learn by wrote would be able to follow the discussions.

                                                             ***  Chapter 11 to be continued

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