Importance of Sanskrit - Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in Sanskrit Literature


 “Thou hast woven, O Mystic Fire, the earthly speed-ranges by thy light and the force of thy mighty power….”

This prayer in the Rig Veda (6.6.6) is an illumining illustration of a scientific truth of the speed of light, which was discovered at least five thousand years ago, and which has been expressed in the ancient but ever-young language, Sanskrit, which was at one time a vehicle of a vast body of knowledge, and which we can visit once again to recover that knowledge, and even to rejuvenate ourselves for further advancement of knowledge in our own times. We can see in this verse, which has been taken from the Ŗg Veda, the ancient awareness of various speeds of earthly energies, and the assured confidence that the speed of light transcends all other physical speeds in such a way that the latter can be measured in terms of the former.

We may also refer to another verse of the Rig

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

Veda (I.50.4), which also speaks of the speed of light that outstrips all in regard to their speeds. The verse reads as follows:

तरणिर्विश्वदर्शतो ज्योतिष्कृदसि सूर्य।
विश्वमाभासि रोचनम्।। ऋग्वेदः 1.50.4

This verse is addressed to self-radiant Sun, and describes it “as the supreme light that outstrips all in speed and as spiritual radiance that awakens all and shines through the entire firmament.”

It is interesting to observe that in the history of Sanskrit as also in the history of Vedic knowledge, the interpretation of this verse had remained so alive that Sāyana in the 14th century A.D. while commenting on the term “taraņi”, which occurs in that verse, provides a detailed mathematical formula of the speed of light in the following terms:

तथा च स्मर्यते -
योजनानां सहस्रे द्वे द्वे शते द्वे च योजने।
एकेन निमिषार्धेन क्रममाण नमोऽस्तुते।।

“It is remembered”, says Sāyana, “Obeisance to Thee, (O self-radiant Sun), who can cross the distance of two thousand two hundred and two yojanas just in half a nimisa (twinkling of an eye).”

If we can work out this mathematical formula by determining the meaning of yojana and nimisa

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

(as is shown in a note in the Appendix), the figure that we obtain for the speed of light is 185793.75 miles per second, which is very near the modern value of 186000 miles per second.


The history of Indian science is closely linked with the origin of the Vedic texts. According to one view, the Veda not only contains some illuminating truths of scientific knowledge but contains even the truths that physical science has discovered in the modern times. This claim may require a good deal of proving, but it can be said that not only ancient Indian civilisation but even several other ancient civilisations possessed secrets of science some of which modern knowledge has recovered, extended and made more rich and precise but others are even now being recovered. In regard to the Veda, Sri Aurobindo finds in the Veda truths of a science the modern world does not at all possess. Of the Vedic seers and their achievements, Sri Aurobindo states:

"They may not have yoked the lightning to their chariots, nor weighed sun and star, nor materialised all the destructive forces in Nature to aid them in massacre and domination, but they had measured and fathomed all the heavens and earths within us,

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

they had cast their plummet into the Inconscient and the subconscient and the superconscient; they had read the riddle of death and found the secret of immortality; …." [1]

The language of the Veda is symbolic, and the knowledge that it contains in regard to Matter, Life, Mind and Supermind, as also of unity of the universe and the oneness of Ultimate Reality is presented in a language that is not easily legible to us. It speaks of Matter and the knowledge of Matter as that of the three earths; it speaks of life-force as the mid-region (antariksha), and it speaks of mind and the knowledge of the mind as of three heavens. And beyond the triple lower world of Matter, Life and Mind, it speaks of truth-world, the world of the Truth, Right and Vast (satyam ritam brihat) manifested in swar, with its three luminous heavens. The Veda goes still farther, and it expounds the knowledge of the still higher three worlds which in the later tradition of Indian knowledge has been identified with the knowledge of the worlds of the Being, Conscious-Force and Delight. To the Vedic seers all this knowledge was scientific, considering that that knowledge is systematic and it is verifiable, repeatable and capable of further expansions in the light of constant enlargement. The entire spirit of the Vedic quest of knowledge is governed by

[1] Sri Aurobindo: The Secret of the Veda, Vol.10, Centenary Edition, p.439

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

spirit of constant quest and constant progression, as the following verse testifies:

ब्रह्माणस्त्वा शतक्रत उद वंशमिव येमिरे।
यत् सानोः सानुमारुहद भूर्यस्पष्ट कत्र्वम्।। 1.10.1-2

 “O thou, endowed with hundred dimensions of consciouness-force, the mind movements strive up by thee as they climb thee as upon  a trunk. When one climbeth form plateau to plateau, much that still remains to be known becomes clearer.


It is to be noted that six sciences or scientific bodies of knowledge developed out of the Vedic Samhitās as an aid to the correct understanding and interpretation of the Veda. These six bodies of knowledge, which are called Vedangas, are: shikshā, kalpa, vyākaraņa, nirukta, chhanda, and jyotisha. A book called shikshā sangraha contains a collection of thirty-two systems which are related to sound, letters, pronunciation and method of teaching and learning of these basic elements. The entire kalpa literature, which deals with the law of action and reaction as also laws of interchange in the universe, includes Dharma shastras as also Shulba Sutras. It is well-known that Shulba sutras are related to the

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

science of geometry and architecture which arose out of the necessity of the construction of sacrificial altars, fire vessels and other related structures.

Nirukta is a kind of a commentary on collections of difficult words used in the Vedas. The entire science of interpretation has developed out of Nirukta. An important development of Nirukta is the science of grammar or vyakarana, in regard to which there is a vast literature in Sanskrit. Great grammarians like Brihaspati, Indra, Maheshvara and Panini have enriched the science of grammar. Panini’s famous book, Ashtādhyāyi, has come to be regarded as a model work in the field. According to some commentators, Panini belonged to 7th century B.C. while others place him in the 4th century B.C. According to Yuddhistra Mimamsaka, the great Vedic scholar of 20th century, Panini belonged to 2900 years before the beginning of Vikrama Era which is supposed to be 200 years after the Mahabharata war. The most authentic book on Panini’s Vyākaraņa is that of Patanjali. It is only after 15th century A.D. that the tradition of Panini and Patanjali came to be replaced to some extent by the tradition of Kātantra. In that tradition, the Siddhānta Kaumudi of Bhattoji Dikshit and Prakriyāsarvasa of Narayanabhatt are most prominent. It may also be mentioned that vyākaraņa

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

developed also in the field of philosophy, and this was initiated by Bhartrihari who belongs to the 6th century A.D.

The science of poetic metre, chhanda, also needs to be noted, since no serious student of poetics in India can ignore the study this science. It may also be noted that the chhanda shāstra developed throughout the centuries and millennia, and about 50 metres are still prominently studied in Sanskrit literature. It may also be mentioned that the development of musical science owes a great deal to chhanda shāstra. In recent times, Professor G.H. Tarlekar has made a special study of Samaveda, chhanda shāstra and musical science. He has also written on the development of musical instruments and the technology which was developed through the ages in regard to the construction of musical instruments in India. His research work shows that the chanting of Japanese shomyo, which is the stotra of Buddha found in the Buddhist canon written by Chinese Buddhists in the 6th century A.D., provides links with the chanting of samanas. The application of the science of chhanda, science of rāga or melody, and of the science of psychology in regard to the cure of suffering from illness is being experimented upon in Maharashtra. This experimentation has stimulated fresh research in

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

Sanskrit texts in regard to the science of chhanda and music. Among the important works in Sanskrit regarding music and its place in dance and drama, the most important one is Nātya Shāstra of Bharat Muni. The tradition established by Bharat Muni has remained prevalent for more than a thousand years and even in the book, Sangeet Ratnakar of Sarangdev of 13th century A.D., the authority of Bharat Muni has been acknowledged.

The sixth Vedanga is related to the science of astronomy and astrology, jyotisha. Jyotisha is considered to be the science of light, and it is looked upon as the eyes among the Vedangas. Jyotisha Vedanga of Rigveda has been attributed to Lagadhacharya. There is also a jyotisha related to the Yajurveda and another related to the Atharvaveda, which is the longest consisting of 14 chapters and 102 verses.

Among the greatest astronomers and astrologers of India, the most celebrated name is that of Varahamihira whose famous book Pancasiddhāntikā speaks of five systems of jyotisha: pitāmaha siddhānta, Vasistha siddhānta, Romaka Siddhānta, Poulisha Siddhānta and Sūrya Siddhānta, In due course, jyotisha inspired the development of arithmetic, algebra, geometry.

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

In the 5th century A.D., Aryabhatta wrote two books, Aryabhattiya and Ardharatrikapaksha. Brahmagupta of 6th century A.D. wrote a famous book, Brahmasphuta siddhānta. It may be noted that Aryabhattiya was also taken to the Arabs and was translated by Abul-Hasan Ahawzi under the title Arajbhara (pronounciation of Aryabhatta in Arabic terms.) One of the brightest names of the later period in India in the field of Indian astronomy is that of Bhaskaracharya of 12th century A.D. who wrote four treatises, including Lilāvati and Siddhānta Shiromaņi.

It is well-known that Aryabhatta had developed the theory of revolution of the earth, and the Sanskrit literature dealing with astronomy and mathematics indicates remarkable accuracy and consummate skill. Astronomers and mathematicians renowned in Sanskrit literature calculated with remarkable accuracy the diameter of the moon, the eclipses of the moon and the sun, the positions of the poles, and position and motion of the major stars. They expounded the theory of gravity and in one of the Siddhānta works, it is stated: The earth, owing to its force of gravity, draws all things to itself.

It is also acknowledged that these astronomers

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

and mathematicians developed numerals and decimal systems, both of which migrated to Europe through the Arabs from India. The numerals are found on the rock edicts of Ashoka (256 B.C.) centuries before their occurrence in Arabic literature. The decimal system was known to Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta long before its appearance in the writings of the Arabs and the Syrians. The oldest known use of zero in Asia or Europe was borrowed from India and this has been acknowledged to be one of the subtle gifts of India to humankind.

Algebra was developed by Indian mathematicians and Bhaskaracharya had invented the radical sign, and many algebraic symbols. Sanskrit literature in mathematics is a testimony of the development of the conception of a negative quantity, without which algebra would have been impossible. This literature also gives formulae and rules for finding permutations and combinations as also for finding the square root of two. The mathematical literature of the 8th century A.D. shows that Indian mathematicians had solved indeterminate equations of the second degree that were unknown to Europe until the days of Euler, a thousand years later. It is also interesting to notice

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

that even scientific works were expressed in poetic form, and this imparted to mathematical problems a grace characteristic of India’s literary genius.

It is well-known that Aryabhatta had calculated the value of pi at 3.146 – a figure not equaled in accuracy until the days of Purbac (1423-61) in Europe.

The so­-called Pythagorean Theorem was anticipated by Shulba sutras, and even the Greek theory of the physical universe was anticipated by thinkers like Kanada who held that the world was composed of atoms. Kanada also maintained that light and heat were varieties of the same substance, and Vachaspati had anticipated Newton in interpreting light as composed of minute particles that emanated from substance and striking the eyes. Calculus was anticipated by Madhava three centuries before Newton and Leibnitz.


There are four other sciences which developed out of the Vedic texts. They are known as Upavedas. These are: ayurveda, dhanurveda, gandharvaveda and arthaveda.

Ayurveda is related to the secret of life and the

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

science of art of sustenance, protection and maintenance of long life. The originator of Ayurveda was supposed to be Dhanwanatri. Apart from him, other prominent names are Atreya, Kashyapa, Harita, Agnivesha and Bhedamuni. At present, three important books of Ayurveda are rightly studied: Charaka samhitā, Shusruta samhitā and Vāgbhatta samhitā. These three books are collectively called brihat trayi.

Chemistry developed from Ayurveda. Chemical excellence of cast iron in ancient India has been widely acknowledged. India was looked upon, even by Imperial Rome, as the most skilled of the nations in such chemical industries as dyeing, tanning, soap making, glass and cement. Sanskrit literature shows the Indian mastery of calcinations, distillation, sublimation, steaming, fixation, production of light without heat, the mixing of anaesthetic and soporific powders and the preparation of metallic salts, compounds and alloys. King Porus is said to have selected, as a special valuable gift for Alexander, 30 pounds of steel, rather than of gold and silver.

The Ayurvedic literature deals with anatomy and physiology and describes ligaments, sutures, lymphatics, nerve plexus, fascia, adipose and

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

vascular tissues, and many more muscles than any modern cadaver is able to show. Atreya (500 B.C.) anticipated Weismann by 2400 years in maintaining the view that the parental seed contains in itself, in miniature, the whole parental organism. Ayurvedic literature also describes foetal development with considerable accuracy. It is remarkable that Ayurveda is practised very widely in India even today, and its efficacy is increasingly acknowledged even in different parts of the world.  Sushruta wrote down in Sanskrit the entire system of diagnosis and therapy, and also described many surgical operations, such as cataract, hernia, lithotomy, etc. He also mentions 121 surgical instruments including lancets, sounds, forceps, catheters, rectal and vaginal speculums. He was the first to graft upon a torn ear portion of skin taken from another part of the body, and this kind of operation came to be studied and propagated so widely that we have the evidence of a solider of British army in India who was treated by this kind of operation by a local and so called unqualified surgeon (This example was cited with convincing evidence not long ago in an exhibition organised by the Wellcome Institute in London for the History of Medicine).

One of the greatest works in medicine was produced by Bhava Mishra (1550 A.D.) and this

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

work is a voluminous treatise on anatomy, physiology and medicine, and it mentioned a hundred years before Harvey the circulation of the blood and prescribed mercury for that novel disease, syphilis which had been brought in at that time by Portuguese into India. It is also noteworthy that vaccination unknown to Europe before the 18th century A.D. was known in India as early as 550 A.D.  Fortunately, it is being increasingly acknowledged that Medieval and modern Europe owes its system of medicine directly to the Arabs and through them to India.

Dhanurveda seems to be a very ancient science, dealing with the science and manufacture of weapons of war and also with the science of warfare. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata, a good deal of light is thrown upon these sciences and arts. The most important ancient books of Dhanurveda are not available but some of the known books are Dhanurviddhi, Dronavidya, Kodanda Mandana, and Dhanurveda Samhita.

Gandharvaveda is the science of music, derived from the Samaveda and we have already dealt with this subject briefly, while dealing with the Vedanga of Chhanda.

Arthaveda is the Upaveda of the Atharvaveda,

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

which deals with social, economic, and political systems. It also deals with architecture, vāstu shāstra, and various arts. According to Shukraniti there are a number of arts but 64 are considered to be more prominent. In later literature we find that 64 arts or kalas were expected to be cultivated by a cultured lady. These included the art of cooking, skill in the use of body ointments and paints for the teeth, etc., music, dancing, painting, garland-making, floor decoration, preparation of the bed, proper use and care of dress and ornaments, sewing, elementary carpentry, repair of household tools and articles, reading, writing and understanding different languages, composing poems, understanding dramas, physical exercises, recreation for utilising leisure hours, and the art of preparing toys for children.

The most famous book of Arthashastra is that of Kautalya. This book has remained authoritative, and many books which have been written thereafter on Arthashastra rely upon that book. Prior to Kautalya, we have also the famous enunciations of Bhishma and Vidura.

It may also be mentioned that in India science and philosophy developed by mutual influence, and the Sanskrit literature connected with all the

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

systems of philosophy contain a good deal of scientific knowledge, which one can visit even today for gaining new insights, and which can prove stimulating for the development of contemporary science.


Epistemology of scientific knowledge is currently gaining a dominant position in the contemporary march of knowledge. In this context, the epistemological inquiry that can be discerned in numerous works in Sanskrit could prove to be indispensable. Quest of knowledge, determination of the instruments and methods of knowledge, limitations of the present organisation of human consciousness and the methods by which these limitations can be transcended – these have been elaborately studied right from the earliest times, and this endeavour can be witnessed even in the Vedas and the Upanishads. One of the quintessential questions of epistemology has been formulated sharply in the very first verse of the Kenopanishad:

केनेषितं पतति प्रेषितं मनः।
केन प्राणः प्रथमः प्रैति युक्तः
केनेषितां वाचमिमां वदन्ति।
चक्षुः श्रोत्रं क उ देवो युनक्ति।।1।।

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

By whom missioned falls the mind shot to its mark? By whom yoked moves the first life-breath forward on its paths? By whom impelled is this word that men speak? What god set eye and ear to their workings?

There are three methods of knowledge which have been particularly highlighted and these processes have been acknowledged by the scientific inquiry which has been elaborately described in various Sanskrit texts. The first process which was emphasised was that of observation. Indian epistemology had always admitted the importance of observation by physical senses, and pratyaksha has been admitted as a valid means of knowledge in Indian epistemology. At the same time, the limitations of pratyaksha (knowledge by direct observation through the senses) have also been recognised, and knowledge by deeper observation which transcends the use of physical senses was also developed. The first of these movements of transcendent observation is strikingly presented in the scientific and philosophical systems of Samkhya. That system underlines the methods by which the transcendental observer, as distinguished from empirical observer could be discovered. The result was the discovery of witnessing consciousness (sākshibhāva). In a further development,

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

there came about a discovery of what can be called enveloping consciousness (vishwa chetanā) in which the observing consciousness is able to envelope the entire field of objective existence. A farther development was that of knowledge by identity and methods by which identity (tādātmya) of subject and object can be gained. Highest place was assigned to knowledge by identity in which the observing consciousness is able to enter into the very stuff of objective existence and be aware of its contents by a realisation of the ever-present being of the observing consciousness in the universe as objective representation of its own processes and modifications. In this scheme of knowledge the unity of the universe and oneness of existence were not articles of inference (anumāna) but as self-luminous (svyam prabhā) state of being and becoming. When the Veda speaks of ekam sad viprā bahudā vadanti (Reality, that is one, is variously expressed by the seers) it expresses that process of knowledge by identity. The same identity is expressed when the Upanishads declare: tat tvam asi (That art thou), sarvam khalu idam brahma and sarvāņi bhutāni atma eva abhūt (self being has become all existences).

Let us consider the relevance of this epistemology to the modern developments of

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

physical and other sciences. It is not necessary for our purpose to argue that the Cartesian dualism and Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe have now been surpassed. We may simply state that there are four factors which have contributed to the transcendence of dualistic or fragmented perception of the universe. Firstly, Jagdish Chandra Bose, the great Indian scientist, demonstrated a hundred years ago to the scientific world that there is in the universe unity of life and mind, and even of matter and life. Secondly, in the wake of the development of the Darwinian theory of evolution, questions have been raised in regard to the origin of Mind in life and mater. Has Mind suddenly erupted? Was Mind already present in matter and life? Scientists and philosophers of science are increasingly dissatisfied with the refusals to enter into the realm of explanation or to answer the question in terms of chance or in terms of mechanical explanation. Penrose, for example, has come to suggest that it is quite possible, in physics, to have fundamentally a new property, completely different from any contemplated hitherto, hidden, unobserved in the behaviour of ordinary matter. The very title of his great book indicates a new shift in scientific thought. The title of his book is Shadows of the Mind: A Search for a Missing Science of Consciousness.

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

Philosophers like Bergson, Alexander, Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo have been led to posit consciousness as the underlying driving force of evolution. Thirdly, developments in quantum mechanics have led scientists to recognise the importance of Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty and of Bell’s Theorem which indicates unity in the operations of sub-atomic matter. David Bohm, the celebrated physicist, points out that the quantum theory presents a much more serious challenge to the idea of mechanistic order, going far beyond that provided by the Theory of Relativity. Bohm has even suggested that matter and consciousness are manifestations of an implicate order, which enfolds all that which is. Fourthly, researches in extra-sensory perception and in higher levels of the mind have led psychologists to increasing acknowledgement of cosmic consciousness.

Momentous consequences follow for the relevance of Sanskrit. For if there is one language where endless writings have continued to pour on the theme of consciousness, on the theme of methods of knowledge and on the theme of validity of knowledge and certainty of knowledge, it is Sanskrit. From the dateless antiquity when numerous seers composed the Vedic hymns, thousands of varieties of experiences and

Science in sanskrit literature

Science in sanskrit literature

realisations of various levels of consciousness have been enquired into and verifiable statements regarding them have been recorded. These will need to be studied by all who belong to the frontier areas of research. Consequently, this will have multiplier effect on all interdisciplinary studies. Inescapably, Sanskrit which is already a world language will become a leading world language.


We have not yet referred to a number of subjects such as agriculture and animal husbandry, and to subjects that deal with machines and instruments which have been described in Sanskrit works. Recent works in Sanskrit, such as Vedic Mathematics by Sri Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, have not been touched upon. We have also refrained from those important reflections in philosophy, in art, and various other domains of knowledge which had close connection with the developments and science in India and which are to be discovered by further research in Sanskritic texts. The subject is very vast. We have to realise that a large number of manuscripts which have come to be collected have not yet been studied and scrutinised.

Science in sanskrit literature

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