The question that I will try to discuss is: In science what is the direction of the Indian effort? Where are these sciences going? What is their quest? Like Archimedes or Newton, are they attempting to discover laws of the universe - or are they trying to do something else (say comprehend our surrounding for solving various problems, for living well in the world)

Much of the theory and practice and even more so the methodology of the Indian tradition in sciences remain largely obscure to most of us brought up on certain naive assumptions on the nature of science based exclusively on the Western understanding of the nature of the scientific quest mostly based on the Western experience. We have taken to the belief that science is nothing if not a search for truth which is ultimate and absolute: that the scientific theories are designed to be a totally faithful transcription of the world and that progress in science ought to be directed to arriving at the ultimate true description. Thus the scientific quest itself is viewed as a quest for the ultimate true theory. One of the consequences of our adopting such views uncritically has been that we have more or less acceded to the fact that science is a very special activity of the few who are truth seekers, somewhat in the sense of the ancient Indian Rsis. In a more ordinary sense, we have also become victims of the Western theories of rationality and progress which are merely designed to present the evolution of the West in a very special light in comparison with other civilizations.

It is very important therefore that we try and understand the nature of the scientific quest in India. We make a preliminary effort in this note to understand how the Indian sastrakara's have expounded on the nature of the sastra's, and even in this we restrict ourselves to a discussion of jyotihsastra (1), the science of celestial objects.

The first crucial feature of any sastra is that there has to be a clear statement-of prayojana or purpose of the sastra. While it is indeed true that all sastras are" ultimately related to the fulfillment of the various purushartha's, every sastra still devotes considerable effort to clearly state the prayojana or the aim or purpose of that sastra, and as are rule in most of the sciences the prayojana is a fairly mundane purpose, having mostly to do with the vyavakara or the activities concerning ordinary living. The prayojana or purpose of jyotihsastra is to enable determination of kala (time), desa (place) and dik (direction). The ancient Vedanga Jyotisha texts declare jyotihsastra to be kalavidhana sastra. Much later, Bhaskaracharya (c,12th Century) states in his treatise Siddhantasiromani that "from this (jyotih)sastra there arises the knowledge of time (kalabodha)". His commentator Nrisimha Daivajna (c.l6th Century) explains that [Quotation 1] "that the term kala also encompasses dik1”12).

The determination of kala, dik and desa is to be achieved through grhagatipariksha, a study of the motion of the celestial objects. As Nilakantha Somasutvan (c.l6th c-Century) remarks [Quotation 2]: "The purpose of the sastra is to create in the students the capacity for investigating the motion of celestial objects". In the same way Ganesa Daivajna (c.l6th Century) explains in his commentary on Bhaskaracharya's Lilavati that the purpose of even Canita Sastra is to enable computation of the movements, orbits, rising, setting etc., of celestial objects.

The prayojana of the jyotihsastra being thus understood by the Indian astronomers they put all their effort in making accurate observations, in developing suitable theories and efficient methods of calculation, and in evolving crucial tests which would help them correct their theories whenever they seemed to be inaccurate. A new treatise or text would be written with the explicit understanding that it fulfills a certain need in the vyavahara (or the actual application of the science). For instance Brahmagupta (c.7th Century) explains in the introduction to his manual Khanda Khadyaka that [Quotation 3] "The methods expounded by Aryabhata (c.5th c-Century) are generally impracticable for every day calculation" and hence he has set out to compose the new treatise.

We should emphasize the fact that the Indian sastra karas repeatedly point out that sastras do become slatha (inadequate, weak) over time. This is almost always taken to be inherent in the very nature of things, although sometimes reasons are also given as to why many great sastras of ancient times have become inadequate. In jyotisha, the indication that the 'sastra has become slatha is that one no longer has drgganitaikya (concordance between theory and observation). Let us cite a few instances of how the Indian astronomers understand the issue of sastrasamsthapana -re establishment of the sastra whenever it becomes slatha.

In his Karanaratna, Devacharya (C.7th century) explains the reasons for his attempts at sastra sthapana as follows.[Quotation 4 and 5]:

The Karana texts of ancient times do not yield accurate results either because of the dullness of the pupil's intellect, or because of the cryptic teaching of the preceptor; or else, because of the inexactitude of the multipliers and divisors.

They say that the aim of acquiring the knowledge of astronomy is to rectify and re-establish the lost methods or to discover and highlight new methods. Hence this attempt of mine.

Having basically understood that any sastra invariably changes over time and place the Indian Astronomers had no philosophical or other problems in revising and reformulating their theories whenever they discovered in vyavahara that their sastra had become statha. For instance Jyesthadeva (c. 16th century) in his Malayalam text Drikkarana describes the long series of revisions performed within just the Aryabhatiya school of Indian astronomy [Quotation 6-18]:

Now I shall set out in brief what the early astronomers enunciated. Before Kali 3000, the eclipses and other observed phenomena did not tally with astronomical manuals or the Siddhantas

Then, in the Kali year jnanatunga (3600 = A.D.499) an astronomer by name, Aryabhata was born in this world

In the Kali year giritunga (3623 = A.D. 522) was his work aryabhatiya composed and therein he enunciated the revolutions (of the planets).

He had adjusted these revolutions by reduction and addition in such a way that there was no zero-correction at the beginning of Kali.

In course of time, deviations were observed in (the results arrived at by) this computation. Then, in the Kali year mandasthala (3785 = A.D.684) equivalent to saka tanuta (606), several astronomers gathered together and devised, through observation, (a system), wherein (the correct mean longitudes were to be found) by multiplying the current Kali year - minus - giritunga (Kali 3623, viz., the Aryabhatan epoch).

This system was termed Parahita and many followed it, assuring themselves of its accuracy.

When a long time had elapsed, there occurred substantial deviations. Then, (Paramesvara), a noble brahmana, residing on the coast of the Western Ocean, revised it (i.e. the Parahita system) by means of (astronomical) observations, in the Kali year rangasobhanu (4532 = A.D. 1431).

The work Tanirasangraha by Nilakantha, (with revised constants) is for twelve years later.

The revolutions given therein (i.e., in Tantrasangraha) too, becoming imperfect (in course of time), observations were continued by the astronomers on the west coast for thirty years, from the Kali year jaustava (4678 = A.D. 1577) to the Kali year janaseva nu (4709= A.D. 1607) and, by observation, the astronomical tradition was revised accurately.

Hencefore, too, (the deviations) that would occur should be carefully observed (and revisions effected).

The realisation that sastra's invariably become slatha is indeed very common in the Indian astronomical traditions. For instance there is a detailed statement in the the Brihattithichintamani of Ganesa Daivajna (c.l6th Century), describing how sastra which is tathya (accurate) at one period of time becomes inaccurate and needs samsthapana in any later period [Quotation 19].

This job of reestablishing the sastra at any period of time is indeed not a simple task and is very difficult to comprehend from the naive philosophies of science which are in currency today There must have been several instances in the Indian tradition of astronomy when this task was seen to be too demanding. Commenting on the faintheartedness of some of his predecessors, Nilakantha Somasutvan (c.!6th Century) declared in his important work Jyotirnimamsa that [Quotation 20]

A commentator on the Manasa (viz. Laghumanasa of Munjala) has lamented: 'Indeed, the siddhanias, like Patamaha, differ from one another (in giving the astronomical constants). Timings are different as the siddhanias differ (i.e. the-measures of time at a particular moment differ as computed by the different siddhantas). When the computed timings differ, Vedic and domestic rituals, which have (correct) timings as a component (of their performance) go astray. When rituals go astray, world-life gets disrupted. Alas, we have precipitated into a calamity..

Here, it needs to be stated: 'O faint-hearted, there is nothing to be despaired of. Wherefore does anything remain beyond the ken of those intent on serving 1 at the feet of the teachers (and thus gain knowledge)? One has to realize that the five siddhantas had been correct at a particular time. Therefore, one should search for a siddhanta that does not show discord with actual observations (at the present time). Such accordance with observation has to be ascertained by (astronomical) observers during times of eclipses etc. When siddhantas show discord, i.e. when an early siddhanta is in discord, observations should be made of revolutions etc. (which would give results which accord with actual observation) and a new siddhanta enunciated.

Nilakantha Somasutvan then goes on to a very interesting discussion as to how we can reconcile the common understanding that all sastra's are in some sense 'divine revelations' and the inexorable fact that a sastra becomes slatha over time [Quotation 21]. His point is that, though all sastra's are divinely inspired and sastra samsthapana cannot be done' without divine grace, sastra's still remain essentially human creations (though of gifted individuals) and cannot in any sense be expected to be the ultimate or absolute truth. For the same reason one has to reconcile with the fact that the sastra's even though they are creation of great and inspired individuals, change over time and place.

It is this understanding of the sastra as an essentially human construct (purushabud-dhiprabhava) that enables Indian scientists to be able to reconcile and live with different schools of thought (siddhantas or pakshas) in any sastra as long as they are found suitable in vyavahara. If the business of jyotihssastra were to arrive at the true picture of planetary motion, then from the time say, Aryabhata proposed the model of diurnal rotation of the earth as opposed to the (then) traditional model of the rotation of the celestial sphere, all work in jyotihssastra would have to concentrate on resolving which is the true model. But instead, the Indian astronomers continued to concentrate on refining the basic astronomical parameters to arrive at better accord with observations in each school of thought, rather than making the business of settling what constitutes the true picture of the world as the raison de etre of science.

This issue is very well explained by Nrsimha Daivajna (c.l6th Century) in his commentary on Bhaskaracharya's Siddhanta Siromani where he explains how one has to reconcile to granting legitimacy (pramanya) to two different sastra s which posit mutually contradictory pictures of celestial motion [Quotation 22]. Nrsimha Daivana s argument is that if different schools of thought cause no problem in vyavahara then we should grant pramanya to both of them. He points out that even as regards questions of ultimate reality divergent schools of thought are possible because even they are human constructs (purusha buddhiprabhava). In sastra's like jyotisha a student should be free to use or adopt any satisfactory model that is to one's liking. He then goes on to quote from the commentary of Chaturveda Prhudakaswami (c.9th Century) on Brahmagupta's Brahmasphuta Siddhanta that

Just as the grammarians employ fictitious entities such as prakrti, pratyaya, agama, lopa, vikara, etc to decide on the established real word forms, and just as the vaidyas employ tubes etc. to demonstrate surgery, one has to understand and feel contented that it is in the same way that the astronomers employ notions such as the motion of the planets etc in Manda and sighra pratimandal as for the sake of accurate predictions One has to see the enormous debate on the true model of celestial motion in the Graeco-European tradition of the last two thousand years to realise how refreshingly different the above approach is to the entire question of the nature and purpose of scientific activity.


1. For a discussion of other Indian sciences along these lines see J.K. Bajaj "Indian Tradition in Science ancl Technology" PPST Bulletin No.13 & 14, June 1988,33-43.

2. Many of these quotations and translations are taken from B.V. Subbarayappa and K.V.
Sarfna Indian Astronomy: A Source Book (Nehru Centre, Bombay), 1985.

Author:M.D. Srinivas

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