The Indian Renaissance

Mark Twain once said, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the grandmother of legends and the great grandmother of tradition.

The word ‘renaissance’ essentially indicates a tolerant spirit for the revival of values, an enlightened interest in sciences and arts, a balanced approach towards life and society, a broader outlook towards the future, rebirth and revitalisation of the mind and an openness of approach. Most of us are familiar with the European Renaissance, a period in European history, stretching from the 14th to the 17th century, which saw a revival of science, art, culture and moral values and marked the transition from the Medieval Age to modernity. However, if we shift our gaze to India, we will find that various cultures and civilizations as they have braved the sands of time and evolved over the years, will indubitably be discovered to be enriched with the very essence of what the word ‘Renaissance’ essentially means.

Considering the fact that the numerical system was first invented in India in 1st century BC and one of the most important numbers, zero, was invented by Aryabhatta, Albert Einstein made a very generous remark, “We owe a lot to Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made,” and rightly so. If we only delve a little deep into the pages of history, we would only discover how the Indian civilisation, over the course of 4000 years since the Harappan times has formed the bedrock of tolerance and pluralism, and this tradition has fossilised itself into the very foundations of our country, leading to its revolutionary transformation into what it is today.

In this context it would only be worthwhile to highlight one of the oldest of all documented human languages, Sanskrit, which emerged in India almost 3 and a half millennia ago, and is considered to be the mother of all languages. In ancient times, India has shown a remarkable deal of self-restraint, in that she has never invaded any country, and neither has expressed a desire to become a great maritime power, albeit being surrounded by oceans on three sides. The art of navigation was in fact, born in the Sindhu river, 6 millennia ago. The very word ‘navigation’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘nav gatih’ and the word ‘navy’ finds its roots in the Sanskrit ‘nou’ meaning boat. During the time of a number of civilisations and empires such as the Gupta and Chola empires, maritime navigation was extremely prevalent. Towards the north, the mighty Himalayas were perforated with a number of tunnels and passages through which inter-civilizational communication took place, with China, Korea and Japan.

We can discover a plethora of contributions made by Indian scientists and philosophers, in the fields of science, astronomy, medicine and education, which spearheaded the Indian Renaissance over the years. As early as in 12th Century AD, Bhaskaracharya’s brilliant work on mathematics, Siddhanta Shiromani was regarded as extremely popular. He also calculated the time taken by the Earth to orbit the sun, centuries before any Western astronomer. Other works like Lilavati and Beeja Ganita spanned the spheres of arithmetic, algebra and geometry. Even the emergence of trigonometry and calculus can be traced to India. Reference to ‘zero’ or ‘shunya’ has been made in the Vedas and Upanishads, which also mention the decimal. Significantly, the standard value of ‘pi’ was also calculated by Bodhayana in the 6th century AD, which was confirmed by Aryabhatta in his 10th century AD work Maha Siddhanta.

Indian medicine is almost synonymous with Ayurveda, the precise natural diagnosis and comprehensive therapy of all diseases. Dhanwantari (6th century BC) is regarded as the propounder of this method. His disciple, Sushruta is known to have conducted complicated surgeries like caesareans, fractures, cataracts and even plastic and brain surgery. The usage of anaesthesia has also been recorded and over 125 surgical instruments were used in the field of medicine.

As regards education, the world’s first university was established in the 7th century BC in Taxila (now in Pakistan). Nalanda University in Bihar, is considered to be one of the greatest educational institutions of ancient India, which catered to a huge number of students, some even from China. The Sanskrit language is such a highly developed one, that according to the Forbes magazine, its grammatical precision is regarded suitable for computer language.

India’s contributions to science and civilisation has been a continuous process. Over the years, a number of thinkers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, S. Radhakrishnan and Jawaharlal Nehru, PC Mahalanobis, Homi Bhabha and a host of others have contributed extensively to scientific research and philosophy.

In this lies the seed of Renaissance, where every science and civilizing art is never an isolated phenomenon, but embodies an ever-increasing thirst for knowledge and the collective welfare of mankind. India continues its quest for meaning and relevance in an increasingly complex world, and it can always fall back to the 3000 years of recorded science and philosophy, and a resilience of spirit that few other regions of the world are heir to.

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