India: Knowing Our Heritage
By Mathew Idikkula(Chicago)
There remains a general tendency among the Indians, especially among those who live in America and European countries, to belittle India as backward. The idea of backwardness, presumably, stems from certain visible drawbacks that India faces today: population, poverty, and widespread corruption. Nevertheless, it is a partial picture of a great nation whose larger picture many of us have yet to discover.
India has had a unique and deep heritage the greatness of which has never been surpassed by any other civilization of the world, ancient or modern. Mark Twain pretty much sums up the glory of India in these words: “India had the start of the whole world in the beginning of things. She had the first civilization. She was populous with deep thinkers and subtle intellects.”
There were many ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, all of which have disappeared one after another without a trace. We can only read about them in books. Whereas, India is the only civilization to survive the ravages of time. Obviously, the Indian civilization lives through its culture, traditions, core values, and, above all, its religion.
The glory of India is not a myth but a fact of history. I can proudly say, without being chauvinistic, that nearly everything in the domain of knowledge, language, literature, philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, art, architecture, music, religion, and spirituality has its origin in India alone. In his book, The shape of Ancient Thought, Thomas McEvilley quotes Friederich Schlegel as having declared: “Everything, yes, everything without exception has its origin in India.”
Inspired by the glory of India, despite the prevailing attitude of the West to undermine India, many Western thinkers have written about India’s glory. They include, to name a few, A.L. Basham, Albert Einstein, W. Heisenberg, Huston Smith, Alan Watts, Will Durant, Romaine Rolland, Herman Hesse, Voltaire, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Arnold Toynbee, T.S. Eliot, and Max Muller. Let us salute them for their benevolence to glorify our motherland.
One of those great men, Prof. Max Muller, says: “Whatever sphere of the human mind you may select for your special study, whether it be language, or religion, or mythology, or philosophy, whether it be law or customs, primitive art or primitive science, everywhere you have to go to India, whether you like it or not, because some of the most valuable and instructive materials of the history of man are treasured up in India and India only.”
True, India has been the treasury of wisdom since antiquity. It’s also true that India alone was gifted with a host of rishis, many of whom were scientists, thinkers, and philosophers. These rare minds extended the frontiers of knowledge by exploring the world of science, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, spirituality, and you name it. Highlighting a few of them, I thought, would be one way to get a glimpse of our ancient past.
Aryabhatta, lived around 476AD, was a brilliant Indian astronomer and mathematician. He declared, 1000 years before Copernicus,the earth is round, rotates on its axis from west to east, the inclination of which is 24 degree, and orbits the sun. Also, he accurately calculated the diameter of the earth, the distance from the earth to the sun, and the time the earth takes to complete its revolution around the sun. Aryabhata’s classic work, Aryabhatiya, is an extensive study of astronomy, arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry. He calculated the value of Pi to four decimal places (3.1416), and he introduced the Sine table in trigonometry. He is widely known for his discovery of the most ingenious systems of calculation, namely, the number system using the nine digits, and the decimal system. His most spectacular contribution remains to be the concept of zero, which has revolutionized the world of mathematics.
It was in the light of India’s exceptional advances in mathematics that Einstein had remarked: “We owe a lot to the Indians who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.”
Bhaskaracharya made a striking discovery of gravitation, 500 years before Isaac Newton, where he declared that objects fall on the earth due to the force of attraction by the earth, and he added that all the planets and the stars are held in orbit by mutual attraction.
Maharishi Kanada was the first to expound the atomic theory, 2300 years before John Dalton, where he revealed that all elements are composed of invisible and indivisible atoms.
Likewise, Varahamihira, one of the nine gems in the court of King Vikramaditya,left a lasting stamp of his genius with many of his discoveries in astronomy and astrology.
In the history of medicine, India made history with many novel discoveries. Acharya Charaka, lived around 200 BC,is considered the father of medicine.His famous book, Charaka Samhita, regarded as the encyclopedia of Ayurveda, is a comprehensive treatise that deals with human anatomy, embryology, pharmacology, blood circulation, as well as various diseases and their remedies.
Acharya Sushruta, lived in 600 BC or earlier, is yet another prominent name in the history of medicine. Considered the father of surgery and the science of anesthesia, Acharya Sushruta is credited with the first everplastic surgeryin the world.
Curiously enough, India is the cradle of the two most renowned universities that ever existed in the ancient world: Takshashila Vidyapith, the world’s first university, and Nalanda. Instituted around 700 BC, Takshashila is believed to have imparted instruction to more than 10,500 students from around the world, in 68 different faculties. Besides, India is also the home of the world’s first hospital,built by Chandra Gupta Maurya in 350 BC.
What’s more, India was unusually blessed with the presence of numerous spiritual teachers like Kapila, Patanjali, Ved Vyas, and Sankara, to list a few, whose contributions to the world of spiritual thought stand unparalleled. Thus, we’ve the philosophies of Samkya, Yoga, Brahma Sutras, and the non-dual Vedanta respectively. In Buddha, the embodiment of Dharma, we’ve yet another supreme spiritual teacher whose very birth has made India even more blessed. Buddha is remembered for advocating a radical reform of the then popular religion of India, which eventually inspired millions around the globe.
Although all historic data point to India as the mother of almost everything that’s considered worthwhile, India’s greatest contribution to the world is indeed her spiritual philosophy. The six systems of Indian philosophy that culminate in Vedanta, the end of knowledge, and the concept of infinity advanced by the ancient sages of India constitute the highest thought the human mind has ever conceived.
Where our heritage is concerned, it is a product of two great civilizations that once flourished in India, namely, the Indus and the Vedic civilizations. While the Indus civilization thrived, as early as 5000 BC, in and around the Indus valley giving rise to a highly advanced urban life, the Vedic civilization, believed to be of a later origin, thrived in the upper regions of the Himalayas giving rise to the Vedas, the Dharmasastras, and a voluminous literature, including the Mahabharata, the longest epic ever written.
In short, this is the only land to whose wisdom Plato, Thales, and Pythagoras were disciples. This is the only land that proclaimed to the world that Truth is one only where the many are its manifestations. This is the only land that revealed the paths of Yoga, Dharma, Non-Violence, and Humanity. This is the only land that pursued a life of harmony with everything in nature, living and non-living. This is the only land where thousands of Parsees, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have found a peaceful refuge. Most of all, this is the only land that taught the world, including the so-called Alexander the Great, that the goal of man is not to conquer others but himself.
Never belittle India, our motherland. It’s a delusion to think that India is backward, never was, and never will be.