Ancient Greek civilization is often used as the benchmark of scientific wisdom and philosophy. The Greeks are widely believed to be the founders of modern scientific thought. The Romans are renowned for their contributions to architecture and as superb military strategists, and architects.
The Chinese are attributed with many amazing inventions and are admired the world over for their rich fine art traditions. People admire the Japanese for their strict, highly sophisticated, and refined culture. We all know of the great architectural achievements of the Ancient Egyptians and many Westerners are fascinated by the wonders of Ancient Egyptian art.
But what do we know of the World’s oldest civilization – the ancient civilization of India?
It is astounding, that in the year 2010, few people outside (or inside) India have any knowledge of the incredible cultures that have existed there in the last 20 000 years. One of the reasons for this is that the Hindu culture is extremely complex, and as such, almost impenetrable to outsiders. It is easy to misinterpret, or pass off as over-the-top, weird and too difficult to understand. As a result, Westerners have a very poor understanding of how the rich traditions of the Sub Continent have influenced many of the world’s other more famous ancient cultures.
There has also been a cover up, by Colonial scholars, who, in their jealousy of India’s deep riches and with ulterior plans of acquisition and exploitation, sought to suppress and discredit the Indian with some amazing inventions. This has resulted in a large amount of information on Hinduism being misinterpreted, hidden and lost. Given the significant implications of this information, it is a great loss for humanity that this knowledge has not been explored in more detail.
Following is a discussion of some of the more important contributions that Hindu tradition has made to World culture.
The ancient Indians invented the theorem attributed to Pythagoras, long before the Greeks, but they recorded it, as was their habit, in poetical verse, which caused it to remain a cryptic secret to foreign scholars. The value of Pi, also attributed to the Greeks or Egyptians, was first calculated by ancient Indians. The ancient Hindus even postulated the atomic nature of materials, understanding that matter could be broken down into particles too small to be seen with the naked eye.
In fact, to the Hindus, mathematics was of paramount importance. There existed a complex and highly sophisticated Vedic mathematics discipline, all written in exquisite verse to aid with memorisation and add the dimension of beauty.
These people saw design and number in everything, everywhere. The omnipresence of number takes on a God-like quality for Hindus – governing each aspect of daily ritual. Everything has a meaning associated with dimension and time, and nothing happens by accident – it is all part of the intricate mathematical calculations and formulae underlying the physical and chemical realm of the world in which we live.
As extraordinary mathematicians, ancient Indians invented algebra, trigonometry and countless formulae with proofs. They developed continuous sequences, the precursor to calculus. Calculus was only discovered by European scientist, Isaac Newton, centuries later.
How many people that the Indians are the proud inventors of the world’s oldest martial art – Kaleri? This martial art – a highly developed form combining, science, medicine, dance and fighting in one and is the prototype for all the other martial arts of Asia.
How many people know that the world’s oldest language is Tamil? Unlike many other languages of the ancients – Tamil has survived continuously throughout the ages, and is still spoken in colloquial form by the worlds 70 million odd Tamil community.
Sanskrit, another ancient language of the subcontinent, is the prototype of many European languages.
Damascus steel is attributed to the ancient steel smiths of Karnataka. A solid pole made of this incredible substance, stands un-rusted to this day in Delhi as a tribute to the superb accomplishments of ancient metalworkers. Modern researchers have still not been able to unravel the secrets of how the ancients produced this steel, that eventually made it’s way across the middle east, where it would become the secret of success against the Crusades of the middle ages.
The ancient Indians knew that the world was round, knew of 7 planets and had an incredibly well-developed understanding of astronomy – long before any other culture. They had even calculated the distance between the Earth and the Sun with incredible accuracy.
The Indians played a game that gave rise to the modern version of chess, but the Chinese are usually credited with this invention. A 5000-year-old dice was found in North West India, of course, the world’s oldest, and surprise, surprise playing cards are mentioned in the stories of India’s oldest texts – from many centuries BCE.
The World’s oldest dance style, Bharatanatyam is a mixture of mime, theatre and complex dance sequences. It originated in Tamil Nadu, and was passed on orally between gurus and students of an elite dancing class, before being documented in a text called the Natyashastra which believed to be at least 2000 years old.
In India, Musical notation is several thousands of years old, making it the World’s oldest. Called Swar lipi, it was documented in the texts of the Vedas, Hinduisms original sacred texts.
People now know that the Chinese were great sailors, however I wonder if the Indians didn’t beat them to it – (it just hasn’t been researched). As superb astronomers who were obsessed with goings on in the sky and directions generally, it seems likely that they possessed the necessary skills. The art of navigation was invented by the Sindh civilization 6000 BCE (over 8000 years ago– evident in the Sanskrit word Nava – for sea.
There are ancient stories of seafaring expeditions like Bhoganathar who is said to have travelled from Tamil Nadu to China in around 400 BCE via a sea spice route. This Bhoganathar was the original Lao Zu, one of the greatest philosophers in the ancient world, and author of the incredible Dao De Jing, which founded the entire philosophical tradition of Taoism or Daoism. This history is little known with most people believing that Lao Zu was Chinese.
The Ayurveda, one of the oldest texts in the world, is the ancient Hindus treatise on medicine. The ancient Indians had extensive and accurate knowledge of anatomy and surgery and had methods of suturing, healing bones, performing Caesarean sections and basic plastic surgery, long before any other culture in the world. They recognised 19 different types of diabetes, and had specific treatments for each.
Ayurvedic knowledge included detailed descriptions of pressure points (marma) and of meridian lines (nadis). Around 72 000 of these energy lines were documented. This medical system was the precursor to many other systems of healing that spread throughout Asia, including acupuncture.
The Indians also had a very good understanding of psychology, recognising mental illness before any other civilizations. This is evident, not only from Ayurvedic texts, but also the many discussions in ancient stories that present clever psychological reckoning. The ancients understood conditions like anxiety, depression and somatisation and also had clever cures and preventive methods for these conditions.
Hindu theologians spoke of the ego, thousands of years before Western psychologists did. Jung was in awe of Indian culture and no doubt influenced by it, famously proclaiming that the saree is the most beautiful, feminine garment and should be worn by women worldwide.
Indeed, the Indians, have arguably the world’s greatest textile industry, and perfected the methods of brocade with gold and silver threads, double ikat weaving, jacquard silks, and hundreds of variations in regional weaving styles in cotton, silk and metal threads.
The World’s oldest university was situated in Takshashila in the ancient state of the Punjab, now in present day Pakistan. It was founded in 700 BCE. Records show that scholars from other countries, including Babylon and Greece attended courses there.
Another ancient university in Bihar, Nalanda, founded in 5th century CE, had the capacity for 10000 students, 2000 teachers and was attended by students from all over Asia including China, Indonesia and Turkey.
The ancient Hindus were superb philosophers, evident in the countless enigmatic moral dilemmas and playful metaphorical verses presented in great literary works like Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, and epics like the Ramayana, and Mahabarahata. Even today in advanced Western philosophy, moral arguments of this nature are absent.
The deeply poetic, enigmatic, and often paradoxical verses of the 4Vedas reach levels of metaphysical discussion that are paralleled only by the modern quantum physics discourse. For thousands of years, scholars from India took their works to China and other parts of Asia influencing many cultures as they went. This is evident in the legacy of Buddhism, (and previously Hinduism) in many South-East Asian countries. In Thai, some words are similar or identical to Tamil words, in North Vietnam, it is still possible to find stone inscriptions in Sanskrit. In Cambodia, fine art includes depictions of the Hindu god Vishnu. The Balinese are still Hindu, and the Indonesians and Japanese have a beautiful Ikat textile tradition they can trace back directly to Indian traders.
India is home to the world’s oldest fishing community. Existing outside the caste system, these people have extensive knowledge of the sea collected from living along the coasts continuously for over 5000 years. Maybe some people will recognise the Tamil word katamaran or catamaran boat, a design borrowed from this community.
Included in their obsession with numbers, measurement and all things mathematics, is Vaastu – Indian Feng Shui. This governed the layout of buildings, cities and had strict urban planning principles. Layouts were
designed to use natural energy for insulation, create rainwater reservoirs for cities, towns and villages and preserve natural resources like rivers and forests.
As refined architects the Hindus built incredible structures in wood and stone. The Hindu temples at Kajuraho, and the Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu, recently declared the 8th wonder of the world – are sublime examples of the Hindu architectural tradition.
Everybody knows about Yin and Yang, but how many people know anything of the thousands of symbols present in the Hindu iconography? The swastika (not Hitler’s version) is an ancient symbol of the sun’s energy. The Hindu equivalent of yin and yang – represented as the God that is half Shiva and half Parvati, symbolises the dualistic nature of life (what physicists call waveparticle duality!) energy and matter, masculine and feminine.
How many people know that the paisley design is actually a stylised sprouting mango and associated with Ganesh– the god of the intellect? (There is a Hindu belief that eating mangos increases mental power.) The ancient Indians really got things rolling, inventing the wheel – a symbol found throughout architecture, fine art and textile design in their culture, a good example being the divine Temple of the Sun in Bhubaneshwar.
To put the argument about tea straight once and for all, tea was carried by Bhodi Dharma a traveling sage, who took Zen Buddhism to China, long, long ago. He was from modern day Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of the ancient Hindus is that, despite their incredibly scientific tendencies, they also understood the importance of preserving nature.
Built into every governing principle (including ancient treatise like the Manu Shastra that provided punishments for people who broke environmental laws), was a strict adherence to natural rhythms and cycles and a deep respect for the natural environment.
The ancient Hindus understood the equation ‘what you remove you should replace’ and had ancient tree planting celebrations like Van Mahotsava where tens of thousands of trees were planted across the country every year.
The ancient Hindu society understood the principles of sustainability and applied them in every aspect of governance and daily life. Their deep ecocentricism is reflected in sayings like: parasparopagrah jivanam (the
mutual help of different organisms working together, a putra samo druma (a tree is equivalent to 10 sons), sarva bhuta hita, (the good of society takes precedence over individua’s needs). This included environmental protection, supporting the poor and the rights of all living creatures.
The ancient text, Charak Sanhita states: Destruction of forests is equivalent to destruction of the state. Reforestation is an act equivalent to rebuilding the state and advancing its’ welfare. The ancients had devised complex irrigation and rainwater harvesting methodology and systems of agroforestry that allowed minimal destruction of natural resources, despite the fact that India has always been the most densely populated place on Earth, and is precisely why it has been able to successfully support it’s 1 billion population for thousands of years in such a confined space.
When we marvel at the better-known ancient cultures, it might also be nice to remember the ancient Indians and their contribution to science, philosophy, the fine arts and religion. Unfortunately today, little remains of India’s great culture, instead it is a society in crisis. After centuries of Colonial disturbance, India has become a highly degraded nation. The illusion of wealth has caused the growth of India’s middle classes, at the expense of natural resources and while 75% of the country’s population remains untouched by the benefits of the recent economic boom. The country is full of growing social and environmental problems; prostitution, child trafficking, incest, rampant domestic violence, alcoholism and widespread gang warfare have replaced philosophy, music, art and scholarly pursuits. Corruption, pollution, degraded ecosystems and filthy living conditions, replace the ancient Hindu’s incredible culture of environmental governance and preservation.